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Black Students Have Longer Commutes Under School Choice

Of the cities studied, only in New Orleans did white students travel farther than their black peers.

Black students commute
(AP/Jaime Henry-White)
Black children often travel farther to school and face longer commute times than their white and Latino classmates, according to a new report from the Urban Institute.

In cities including Denver, New York City and Washington, D.C., black children are more likely to leave their own neighborhood in search of a high-quality school, according to the study, which examined urban school districts that operate school choice programs.

Children living in Washington D.C. wards 7 and 8, with the highest concentration of black residents, had the longest commutes to school in the city. In Denver, the commute made by black children was more than 40 percent longer than their peers.

And of the cities studied, only in New Orleans did white students face longer school commutes than their black peers. In Detroit, black and Asian students both shared the distinction of facing the longest commute times. 

And while affluent white students had the shortest commute times, it was affluent black students -- and not their poorer black peers -- who tended to travel farther to attend school.

The Urban Institute study is the latest research measuring school choice and the travel necessary for choice programs through the lens of race and class. A 2015 study in Chicago revealed that more than a third of the city’s poor children traveled more than four miles to school. For wealthy children, the average commute was less than two miles.

While the Urban Institute’s study doesn’t measure the impact of long commutes on academic performance, one earlier study did. In a 2015 report, Johns Hopkins University professor Julia Burdick-Will found that children enduring extended commutes in the city of Chicago may be more likely to drop out of school.

Longer commutes are also less predictable, which can cause students to be late for school. That's true for students whose parents drive them to school as well as for students who use buses or public transportation.

The report profiled one Washington, D.C., 12-year-old, India Sigure, who was able to enroll in a higher-performing school through the city's school choice program. But India's daily trip to school averaged 60 minutes each way, and was sometimes as long as 90 minutes. Arriving before the first bell was a challenge, and the long commute was taking a toll; ultimately, India's family withdrew her from the school and enrolled her in a school in her own neighborhood.

“Besides just being late, commutes can cause stress that comes out in academics, because it comes out in behavior,” Amy Quinn, co-founder and director of teaching and learning at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, an elementary school in Washington, D.C., said in a statement released Wednesday.

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