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In Cities With Lots of School Choice, Black Students Have Longer Commutes

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In cities that have embraced school choice policies—be it charter schools, private school vouchers, or even just allowing students to attend any district school they choose—black students travel further to school than their white and Hispanic counterparts.

But low-income students in high choice cities tend to travel lesser distances to get to school overall than their wealthier peers. At the same time however, families without cars have substantially fewer school choice options available to them within a 15-minute drive from their homes.

Those were among myriad findings from an analysis by the Urban Institute of student travel patterns across cities that offer a lot of school choice—the District of Columbia, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York City—that raise some important questions about equity and access in school choice.

"Having a car dramatically opens up the number of schools you can get to within a 15-minute drive, and low-income families are less likely to have a car," said Kristin Blagg, a research associate at the Urban Institute. "All of these cities have evolved this ecosystem of school choice, and this is a path that other cities appear to be on as well, but nobody has taken a comprehensive look at these issues dealing with the way students get to school. We're not saying that long travel times to school is inherently bad, but there are trade-offs."

Every city included in the study has some combination of charter schools, magnet schools, and private schools, which students can attend with state-funded tuition vouchers, as well as the option for students to attend traditional public schools beyond the ones zoned for their neighborhoods.

The Urban Institute study examined travel times between the homes and schools of nearly 190,000 students. The researchers analyzed only one year of data for elementary, middle, and high school students, so they couldn't glean much about changing trends, and they did not look at the type of transportation that students actually use.

Blagg and her fellow researchers found that black students across all grades, on average, attended schools that are 1-to-5 minutes further by car than the schools that white and Hispanic students were enrolled in.

That may not seem like a lot, but that's assuming that all students drive. Many don't. The researchers just used drive-times as a baseline.

"In D.C, for example, where there's no yellow bus transportation for students ... five minutes driving distance can be substantially longer if you're taking public transit. A 5-minute drive could be a 10, 15-minute transit time difference," said Blagg.

The same goes for yellow bus service, she added, which makes a lot more stops than, say, a personal vehicle.

And there are fewer schools to choose from within a 15-minute drive than a 15-minute transit ride. For example, in D.C., the average kindergartener can reach 31 schools within a 15-minute drive but only 7 schools within a 15-minute transit ride.

Abundance of School Choice Doesn't Guarantee Access

Transportation and commute times are just one issue among a broader set of factors that can affect how accessible school choice policies are for disadvantaged students.

And it's an area of research we've been seeing more activity in lately.

Getting information on school quality and navigating a profusion of different school applications and due dates also create barriers for families when choosing a school—especially for parents with less income, less education, and children with disabilities, according to ongoing research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Some cities are experimenting with ways to address these issues such as mandating that all schools, including charters, provide yellow bus service, creating a single, citywide application system for all schools, and providing comprehensive guidebooks on schools that include how well they perform academically and the services they offer.

There are a lot of other interesting findings in the Urban Institute study that don't really fit into a tidy narrative, but are germane to the debate around school choice access. Here are some of the highlights in no particular order:

  • In all five cities, the group of students who traveled the farthest to school were high schoolers.
  • Charter school students generally do not travel farther than their peers enrolled in their neighborhood district school.
  • Cities that provide buses to students do not necessarily have more students attending schools further out. For example, New Orleans mandates schools provide yellow bus service for all students living beyond 1 mile from their campus while D.C. only provides students with public transportation passes. The commute distances for kindergarteners in both cities is virtually the same.
  • Only a small proportion of the study's sample was made up of students who were not low-income—in this case, students who do not receive a free or reduced-priced lunch from the federal government. But of those students, most tended to travel farther than their low-income counterparts.
  • On average, 9th graders across all five cities live about a 10-minute drive from a high-quality school, which the researchers defined as schools that offer calculus and have high graduation rates and high proportions of veteran teachers. 
  • Almost 60 percent of elementary-aged children in Denver have a public school—either district or charter—in their neighborhood. But the same was true for only 21 percent of children in New Orleans. Part of that could be due to people being redistributed around the city after wide swaths of it were flooded following Hurricane Katrina.

Perhaps the last major takeaway one can glean from this research is that each city's experience is unique and that national generalizations about how school choice effects student commute times and access may not be as helpful to local policymakers as localized research.

On that note, Blagg said the Urban Institute plans to release more detailed, city-specific reports later this year. It will be interesting to see what they find at a more micro level.

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