Answer: Generally speaking, federal laws supersede state laws. However, families who are fraudulently using federal law to avoid following state or local policies on school assignment or attendance are not protected. There is a balance between ensuring that students’ rights under the McKinney-Vento Act are protected, while also intervening in fraudulent situations.
The McKinney-Vento Act specifies that information about a student’s homelessness is an educational record protected by FERPA. 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(3)(G). This means that calling landlords, talking to neighbors, or other invasive practices that potentially expose a student’s living situation to third parties are illegal.
The McKinney-Vento Act also requires that “SEAs and LEAs must develop, review, and revise policies to remove barriers to the identification, enrollment and retention of McKinney-Vento students, including barriers due to outstanding fees or fines, or absences.” 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(1)(I). Aggressive homelessness verification efforts create barriers to identification and enrollment, and possibly retention, because the invading of privacy creates a climate where families who are already vulnerable and embarrassed are less likely to disclose their living situation out of fear of repercussions. Under current immigration enforcement practices, undocumented or immigrant families may be especially negatively impacted.
It is also worth pointing out the U.S. Department of Education’s Guidance about this part of the law. In Question A-4, the Department states:
“The McKinney-Vento Act includes a broad, ongoing requirement for SEAs and LEAs to review policies or practices that may act as barriers to the identification, enrollment, attendance, and school success of homeless children and youths, including barriers due to outstanding fees or fines or absences. (See, e.g., sections 721, 722(g)(1)(I)). It is important for SEAs and LEAs to consistently review their policies and practices with regular input from homeless parents, youths, and advocates so that new barriers, or barriers that the SEA or LEA staff may be unaware of, do not prevent children and youths from receiving the free, appropriate public education to which they are entitled.”
Another helpful reference is this NCHE document: https://nche.ed.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/conf-elig.pdf