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That was true of just 11.8 percent of the seventh graders at Pappas.

In fact, at every grade level, in both math and reading, a higher percentage of the homeless kids who didn't go to Pappas "met or exceeded" the state's standards.

(Dowling contests the statistics, saying that as a longtime critic of Pappas, Haas is biased.)

Meanwhile, the district's per-pupil classroom expenditures are among the lowest in the state.

But despite Dowling's attempts to blame the county supervisors, it's not because they're getting less money.

According to the state inspector general, the Maricopa County Regional School District spends $3,756 per pupil on administration — about $500 more than it spends, per student, on classroom instruction.

Of the 10 "accommodation districts" in this state that seek to educate students in special circumstances, only three spent a lower percentage of money in the classroom. And of the 109 medium-size districts in Arizona, only two spent a lower proportion of money in the classroom.

Across the state in 2005, the auditor general reported, districts spent an average of 9.5 percent of their budgets on "administration" — a category that includes salaries and benefits for high-level district executives.

The total at Maricopa County Regional? More than twice that amount, at 23 percent.

The irony of Sandra Dowling's dramatic expansion of Maricopa County's homeless school system is that she did it even as the U.S. Department of Education pushed the country in a different direction: integrating homeless kids into regular schools.

In fact, since 1990, the very year Dowling took over the shelter school, homeless schools have been virtually forbidden by federal law.

The reason?

For the most part, shelter schools were wildly inferior. Like the school begun in the downtown Phoenix shelter, they were stopgap fixes for the very real hurdles that homeless kids faced in the 1980s. While they didn't require immunization records, they also couldn't offer music, gym, or even a teacher at every grade level.

"There was just no comparison with what regular public schools were offering," says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Youth.

To advocates, shunting homeless kids into separate schools was no better than the segregation of black students in the 1950s.

"These kids should have access to the same programs that housed kids have access to," Duffield says. "And what the evidence has shown is that these schools are not good for kids."

Congress agreed.

In 1990, as part of its reauthorization of the program that funds homeless services, McKinney-Vento, Congress decreed that kids could not be segregated merely because they were homeless. McKinney-Vento required states and school districts to revise any policies that led to homeless children being "isolated or stigmatized."

It was an edict that Dowling found all too easy to ignore. She argued that people like Duffield may think the Pappas kids were being isolated, but they were hardly stigmatized: Her schools had all the modern conveniences, lovely campuses, and even more perks than regular schools, not fewer.

And it was certainly in the best interest of every overworked school official in town that no one challenge her. It was much easier to let Dowling deal with it.

At that time, the "isolation" part of the act wasn't being enforced with any vigor. But in other parts of the country, as people like Barbara Duffield pushed, opportunities for homeless students were expanding.

Districts across the country were adjusting with the new federal rules.

They were accepting students without immunization records or birth certificates. (State education workers were supposed to make sure every school secretary in the state knew it, or risk losing all their federal funds.) And they were also providing transportation.

In 2002, Congress reauthorized the rules mandating homeless integration as part of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind.

This time, the feds provided about $62 million, annually, for districts that wanted to help their homeless students.

Thanks to that, many districts were finally able to start programs specifically to help homeless children. Although they'd previously been mandated to do so, money always makes a difference. Even in Maricopa County, where the Pappas Schools had been allowed to serve as a catchall for so long, many districts began to step up.

Indeed, people who pay attention to homeless education in Arizona now cite numerous examples of school districts that have put together superior programs for homeless families — and are providing services along with superior educational opportunities.

One example is the Kyrene School District, in a fairly affluent area of south Tempe.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske