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Student Transportation: The Next Frontier for Addressing Inequity in School Choice

Taking over the blog this week is Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Before academe, Carolyn worked on secondary schools at the New York City Department of Education. Her research on topics like high school admissions and educational access has been featured in popular outlets like The New York Times and HuffPost, and she is the author of the terrific book Unaccompanied Minors. This week, Carolyn will be writing about how transportation policies influence the equity potential of school choice programs and how immigration enforcement and xenophobia in U.S. schools could have educational implications.

The promise of greater access to better educational options that match students' and parents' preferences is a common refrain used to promote school choice policies in the U.S., which have rapidly expanded over the past 30 years. Today, 3 million students are enrolled in public charter schools (6 percent of all K-12 public school students), up from less than half a million in 2000, and there are charter school laws on the books in 43 states and the District of Columbia. What is more, 46 states have inter- or intradistrict enrollment policies in at least some of their school districts, allowing families some degree of choice over which public school to attend.

Concerns about the equity implications of school choice policies immediately accompanied their emergence. Chief among them were potential barriers to school choice participation that would disproportionately affect lower-income families, families of students with disabilities, and families from non-English-speaking families. As an ever-greater number of school districts have adopted some form of educational choice, new questions have arisen about the role of student-transportation policies in facilitating or impeding equitable school choice participation.

State and local policies regarding student transportation in the context of school choice vary considerably. These policies can powerfully shape the extent to which all families can engage in choice and how schools operate in the choice marketplace. To date, there has been limited understanding of how school transportation policies are implemented on the ground and how differences among them may influence the local school choice landscape, including who participates in choice.

As part of a research team that explored patterns of school-choice-making and travel in five "choice rich" school districts, I interviewed key actors in student transportation in New York City, Detroit, and New Orleans—people in central-district offices as well as individuals working in charter schools, for charter-management organizations (CMOs), or for charter school authorizers. I was interested in learning about the daily experience of managing student transportation, understanding some of the challenges they faced, and hearing about how they responded to these challenges.

These three cities represented different points along the spectrum of mandated transportation provision by schools of choice. Whereas all charter schools in New Orleans are legally required to provide transportation (usually yellow bus service) to every student enrolled in their school, regardless of where they live, charter schools in Detroit are under no such obligation. Rather, individual charter schools in Detroit provide buses or other forms of transportation at will based on a host of considerations such as meeting minimum enrollment targets, budgetary concerns, and the alignment of guaranteeing transportation to the school's mission. In New York City, the Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT) at the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) manages and pays for student transportation for New York City-based charter schools, which usually consists of yellow bus service, full- and half-fare metro cards (based on grades served and distance), or a combination of both. These school districts also vary in terms of the geographic area, size (from 1.1 million students in N.Y.C. to less than 50,000 in New Orleans), and demographic makeup of the student population.

Despite these differences, people working on student transportation across these cities—at both district offices and in charter schools or CMOs—identified a number of common challenges in carrying out their work. They cited the logistical complexity associated with managing transportation for large numbers of students, high levels of student mobility, safety concerns when transporting students to school, and inadequate public-transit infrastructure (in Detroit and New Orleans) among the most significant issues.

Special education transportation costs topped the list of district administrators' budgetary concerns. For example in N.Y.C., 75 percent of the entire budget for OPT is allocated to expenditures associated with special education transportation (which may be mandated by a student's individualized education program). District officials in Detroit similarly named special education transportation as a large budget line item, and they mentioned exploring potential cost reductions by promoting neighborhood school assignments. For New Orleans-based charter schools, the requirement to provide transportation resulted in annual costs of anywhere between $100,000 and $400,000, coming directly from the school budget. And while N.Y.C.-based charter schools did not have direct out-of-pocket expenses for student transportation per se, some hired bus monitors for safety reasons and additional staff to coordinate in-house transportation logistics.

The high costs and administrative complexities associated with student transportation influenced how charter school administrators thought about student recruitment. Across all three cities, charter school leaders described focusing recruitment efforts in the immediate neighborhoods surrounding the school, in part to reduce the need for transportation or to minimize the number of students who travel far to school. Relatedly, charter school administrators described making decisions about where to locate a school or whether or not to expand based on proximity to public-transit hubs and the ability to attract students without having to provide buses.

Significantly, these interviews also revealed how strongly state- or district-level requirements about student transportation influence people's understanding of the relationship among school choice, equity, and transportation. A school official in New Orleans captured a widely shared sentiment in that city about their inextricable link saying: "If you are going to say you have school choice, it is somewhat meaningless if parents can't get to the schools they are choosing. I do think school choice and the requirement to provide transportation go hand in hand. ... Not providing it essentially negates choice." This idea was less prevalent among school administrators in N.Y.C. and Detroit, highlighting the salience of policy for determining what drives perceptions of equity and solutions to sources of inequity.

— Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj

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