West Virginia Schools Superintendent Steve Paine told state education leaders he never planned to start sharing the number of homeless students in the state.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported in July that 10,522 public school students — or nearly one in every 25 students — were recorded as homeless during the 2018-19 school year.
Paine told West Virginia Board of Education members Wednesday that, while the number is “staggering,” its rise over the years “was not a significant increase.”
The number jumped nearly 17 percent in two years, up from 9,025 students in 2017, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Education.
Paine noted the number of homeless students to board members as he debuted the state’s newest annual education report.
The number of homeless students was not included in last year’s annual education report.
When asked about his comments in the meeting, Paine said the number was available on the education’s department website and never consciously omitted from state education reports.
“We are not downplaying it,” Paine said Thursday, yet he added that the number was “downplayed based on the other two statistics that we’re really trying to address: that almost 100 percent increase of kids in foster care and kids born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.”
According to the annual education report, about 5 percent of babies born in 2018 had NAS, which appears in some babies exposed to drugs while in the womb. The syndrome is most commonly linked to opioids.
West Virginia is required under federal education law to record the number of homeless students in each county.
The federal law, known as McKinney-Vento, defines homeless students as students who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” and includes students living in shelters, motels and cars.
The definition also includes students doubled up with family and friends; the majority of the state’s homeless students — 87 percent — are doubled up because of economic hardship.
The count does not include thousands of students in the state’s foster care system.
When board member Debra Sullivan asked Paine to clarify the state’s definition of homeless students, Paine said, “We joke that Sarah’s [a state education department staff member] children are homeless because she’s living with her parents.”
After a pause, Paine said, “That was supposed to be humorous.”
Paine later said his comments were taken “out of context.”
“I did not mean to make light of homeless students,” he said.
Education department Communications Director Kristin Anderson said data on homeless students and poverty were included in this year’s annual report because the department was “under attack” during the legislative session.
“The deck is really stacked against our students,” Anderson said.
Homeless students were not mentioned in the omnibus education bill, and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said education officials never alerted her to the number of homeless students during the session.
Jefferson County holds the state’s largest share of homeless students, at 1,411.
The omnibus education measure — along with authorizing charter schools — provides $30 million for additional support personnel, including psychologists and social workers to help students in need.
Anderson noted that the extra funding will help homeless students.
The education department’s annual report, “2018-19 Year in Review,” can be viewed on its website.