In the 2021-22 school year, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction recorded 16,454 (nearly 2%) of students as being homeless. This is an increase from the 2020-21 school year, which recorded 13,431 (1.6%) of Wisconsin students as homeless.

This already too-high number is likely an undercount, as “for a variety of reasons, some young people don’t report that they are homeless.”1 Homelessness for youth correlates to poorer outcomes for emotional and physical health, lower school achievement, and increased dropout rates, according to the UW-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty.

Megan Sprecher Megan L. Sprecher, St. Thomas 2007,is a supervising attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin in Madison, where she focuses on barriers to employment.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (McKinney-Vento) aims to increase educational stability and access for homeless youth, stemming some of these negative consequences of homelessness.

McKinney-Vento has a broad definition of who is “homeless:” an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This includes children and youth. These individuals are those who:

  • are sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; or are abandoned in hospitals;

  • have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings;

  • are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; or

  • are migratory children who live in one of the above circumstances.2

The importance of this broad definition is illustrated by the data. In the 2021-22 school year, 75 percent of homeless youth that were identified as homeless by Wisconsin school districts were classified as “doubled up” – not as living on the street or in a shelter or vehicle, which is a more traditionally narrow definition of homeless.

Protections Under McKinney-Vento

Under McKinney-Vento, state educational agencies (SEAs), such as the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and local educational agencies (LEAs), such as local districts “must review and revise policies and procedures to remove barriers to a high-quality education for homeless children and youths.”3

DPI is required to have a state coordinator, and each school district must have a local homeless liaison to ensure that homeless students are identified and receive the protections they are entitled to under federal law. Some of the larger districts even have a department that serves homeless families, such as Milwaukee Public Schools’ Homeless Education Program.

McKinney-Vento requires that:

  • homeless students who move have the right to remain in their schools of origin (i.e., the school the student attended when permanently housed or in which the student was last enrolled, which includes preschools) if that is in the student’s best interest;

  • if it is in the student’s best interests to change schools, homeless students must be immediately enrolled in a new school, even if they do not have the records normally required for enrollment;

  • transportation must be provided to or from a student’s school of origin, at the request of a parent, guardian, or, in the case of an unaccompanied youth, the local liaison;

  • homeless students must have access to all programs and services for which they are eligible, including special education services, preschool, school nutrition programs, language assistance for English learners, career and technical education, gifted and talented programs, magnet schools, charter schools, summer learning, online learning, and before and after-school care;

  • unaccompanied youths must be accorded specific protections, including immediate enrollment in school without proof of guardianship; and

  • parents, guardians, and unaccompanied youths have the right to dispute an eligibility, school selection, or enrollment decision.4

Appeals Process

If a homeless youth is denied protection under McKinney-Vento, such as enrollment or transportation, they may dispute the decision made by the district.

The homeless liaison must assist the youth or family through the district’s dispute resolution process. If a dispute is not resolved at the district level, the youth or family may send a request to the DPI superintendent’s office.

Disputes involving McKinney-Vento issues follow DPI’s complaint resolution process and must:

  • be in writing;

  • give the facts of what happened;

  • explain what the complainant disagrees with;

  • explain what the complainant wants to have happen;

  • be signed by the complainant or the complainant’s representative; and

  • be sent to: State Superintendent of Public Instruction, P.O. Box 7841, Madison, WI 53707-7841.

The superintendent or their designee will acknowledge receipt of the complaint in writing.

Possible ways to address the complaint include:

  • providing technical assistance and information and attempt to resolve the matter informally;

  • conducting an investigation or a hearing;

  • issuing a decision based on a review of the record of a hearing held before the local school district; arranging for mediation; and/or

  • granting temporary relief prior to the issuance of a final decision.

Author’s note: Eileen Jennings, a paralegal student at Madison College, did the research for this article. Thank you, Eileen!


1 Princess Safiya Byers and Francisco Velazquez, “Nowhere To Go: Why Wisconsin’s Homeless Youth Go Uncounted and Underserved,” Wisconsin Public Radio, Feb. 21, 2020.

2 Supporting the Success of Homeless Children and Youth, U.S. Department of Education, July 27, 2016.

3 Id.

4 Id.