When Getting to School Is a Challenge
Today's post is a community leader's perspective on Monday's post: How Does School Choice Affect Student Commutes in New Orleans?
Educational progress has been made in New Orleans, but far too many children are still struggling to access high-quality schools. Our current approach to school transportation places an undue burden on students, parents, and schools to absorb the effects of lengthy, circuitous, and expensive commutes.
As Monday's post outlined in greater detail, recent research by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, released in partnership with the Urban Institute, examined student commutes in New Orleans, illuminating just how significant the challenges are. The research found that some students await a bus pick-up as early as 5:00 a.m. and some children spend 6 hours on a school bus per week—meaning the tax on student learning is significant. A child who gets on a bus at 5:00 a.m. may not make it back home until 6:30 p.m. depending on the area of the city she lives in. With so many of our highest-rated schools clustered in areas where families who have children enrolled in public schools cannot afford to live, students (especially Black students from lower-income communities living in far-flung neighborhoods) end up bearing the greatest cost of accessing quality. The positive impact of eliminating transportation barriers to schools of choice is undermined by practices that force students to get up in the dark to wait at unmonitored bus stops and spend long parts of their day in a stressful and/or isolated commute. Students may arrive at school feeling disengaged, which can contribute to behavior problems or children giving up on school altogether. This is especially concerning for our most vulnerable students considering the documented effects of lack of sleep on child brain development and the connection between engagement, learning, and persistence in school.
The costs of providing school transportation places an undue burden on standalone schools and small networks which in New Orleans are overrepresented by local, Black school leaders. Schools are spending twice as much on transportation costs than they did pre-Katrina, leaving fewer funds for things like high-quality instructional materials. We all need to be concerned about the operational sustainability of Black-led schools given our current academic challenges and the robust body of research that has established the positive achievement effects of students who are educated by professionals who look like them. If we are going to enhance the pace of educational success in New Orleans, we need these schools to continue to exist and ensure they are not overburdened by high transportation costs that keep them from delivering on their mission.
How Research Findings Should be Used
The Orleans Parish School Board should create a common-sense school transportation policy that responds to these issues. Setting parameters around pickup times, trip lengths, and pickup locations is a start. Implementing this guidance would be easier if the district looked at the way school schedules are set and advanced a sustainable, equity-focused funding solution to help schools pay for transportation. The district should gather insights and ideas from a broad range of school and parent stakeholders and work with local intermediaries on a funding approach that removes the financial burden on standalone schools and small networks and rewards coordination. (For example, could the district return a percentage of its administrative fee to a fund used to help schools offset transportation costs? Could the charter renewal process incentivize schools that share transportation services?)
Focusing on ways to improve school transportation is a step in the right direction—this is a solvable problem! However, there are broader questions that should not be ignored. Setting a transportation policy that advances students' safety and wellness is a great thing, but holding schools to this standard without offering supportive structures to address logistical and financial challenges may end up worsening outcomes for kids. Providing information on a school's transportation logistics may indeed help New Orleans parents make more informed school choices, but how can we also respond to parents' repeated call for more information and transparency in the school matching process overall? Given the positive effects of parental engagement on student achievement, do we need a transportation policy that also improves access and proximity to the school for parents? Finally, we know that schools in wealthier communities function as anchoring institutions generating cultural, economic, and political value for the surrounding neighborhood - how can we think about a policy that better mobilizes this role?
We can take a technocratic approach and solve our school transportation problem at the fringes by focusing only on the logistics of pickup times, routes, etc.; or we can embrace the opportunity to architect a comprehensive policy that fosters more equity, collaboration, and community-responsiveness in our choice environment.
I hope we do the latter.