Minnesota’s education community has never been more focused on closing our achievement gap, one of the highest in the nation. However, our efforts are hampered when the basic needs of our students are unmet, needs as basic as safe and stable housing. How can we close the achievement gap when thousands of students don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night?
In 2011-12, more than 11,000 public school students were identified as homeless or highly mobile. In Minneapolis, 9 percent of students were homeless at some point last year. Nearly 40 percent of Minnesota public school children are on free or reduced lunch.
Every day, we hear firsthand of the toll that homelessness takes on the classroom environment. A sixth-grader asked his teacher about job opportunities, adding, “If I worked, then maybe my family wouldn’t lose our home.” School administrators learned that a high school student was sleeping in a portable toilet.
Large numbers of students in classrooms turn over during the school year because so many families are constantly moving in search of an affordable place to live. As one teacher put it, “We hate to say goodbye to our students. It’s worse to know it’s because they lost their home.”
Housing is one of the best investments the Legislature could make if it wants to help education. Our students’ future quite literally depends on this foundation, and our community’s future depends upon these students.
The Legislature is now considering a $50 million boost in programs to prevent homelessness and create more housing options, plus $50 million in bonding for affordable housing. The proposals have broad, bipartisan support — they are common sense. The bills are supported by the teachers union Education Minnesota and by dozens of organizations across the state, including our school districts.
As superintendents, we are rooting for housing investment, too. It takes into account just how deeply economic stress and rising housing costs affect our ability to educate kids.
Ignoring the growing need for housing options is also costly. Under federal law, states are required to transport homeless students to keep them in their original school. Last year, Minnesota spent $8 million on transportation for homeless students.
But the largest cost is to our children, through no fault of their own, when their lives are uprooted by homelessness. The last thing they can focus on is school, when learning should be their first priority.
Teachers sometimes send kids home with backpacks full of food for the weekend. More schools are opening food shelves where kids can pick up food and hygiene products. In fact, one suburban district now has a food shelf in every high school because the need is so great.
Schools can help kids meet some basic needs, but we can’t bring homeless kids home.
Michael Munoz is superintendent of the Rochester public schools. Patty Phillips is superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale public schools. This article was also signed by Bernadeia H. Johnson, superintendent, Minneapolis public schools; William Gronseth, superintendent, Duluth public schools, and Randall Clegg, superintendent, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage public schools.