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Study Finds Transportation a Barrier to School Choice


It's one thing to choose a private school or a charter school for your child that is outside your neighborhood attendance zone; it's quite another matter to figure out how to get the kid there and back each day.

According to a new survey report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, transportation problems prevent as many as one quarter of families from enrolling their children in schools of choice. The findings are drawn from a random survey of 600 parents in Washington, D.C., and Denver, Colo. (That's 300 in each city.)

The results suggest that transportation is especially challenging for low-income families, 45 percent of whom do not own cars, or who own vehicles that are unreliable. According to the survey, one third of those families said they did not enroll their child in the school they preferred due to transportation difficulties.

The report's authors—Paul Teske, Jody Fitzpatrick, and Tracey O'Brien—said they did not come across much innovative thinking in the communities they surveyed on how to remove transportation barriers to school-choice programs. So they proposed an idea of their own: If districts spend an average of $700 per student on bus transportation each year, why not give families a transportation voucher for that amount instead? Families might spend it, for instance, on public transportation, maintaining a car, buying bicycles, or organizing van pools, the authors write.

"Choice itself is designed to give parents a decentralized approach to schooling," they write. "A more decentralized transportation function might also provide parents with more tools to make school choices that work better for them." Is the big yellow school bus on its way to junk heap?


In my state, the responsibility for providing transportation to various choice options rests with the local district. The local district has the option of declaring transportation unfeasible (generally due to great distance, or small numbers) and providing a cash payment to parents instead. They are only responsible for transportation according to the distance rules that would require them to provide transport to the regular public school students. Several years ago, they took a very activist stance and tried to grant vouchers widely. This was not well accepted, by either parents or the state. $700 could easily buy a year's worth of monthly bus transportation for a student old enough to ride independently, assuming that the public transportation could fill the need. For a child too young, an adult would have to ride along, at greater expense and great commitment of time. There are some companies that will contract to transport children--but they only contract with districts, not individual parents (not sufficient lucrative, I am guessing).

It's not an easily solved problem. I wonder, though, if district transportation might better be re-organized (particularly for older children) to run more like public transportation. With established routes from point to point to provide more generalized access within a somewhat sheltered environment, rather than seeking to get each individual child from point A to point B. This would, of course, require the cooperation from the local district--a pretty big "if."

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