A couple of years ago, an Arkansas legislator named Reginald Murdock began paying attention to the school buses that plied the highways around his state. Some of them seemed to be on the road for a disturbingly long time, subjecting their student riders to extended periods each day when they couldn’t do much except sit.
Murdock introduced a bill that called for a study of just how much time Arkansas kids were spending on buses. The results came back last summer, and they startled a lot of people. The median-length trip to public school -- one-way -- was 47 minutes. The average pupil was on board for more than an hour and a half in the course of a normal day. At the outer edge of the survey, there were children who recorded daily bus travel times of 5 hours and 34 minutes round-trip. The problem existed not only in remote rural counties but also in the urbanized area around Little Rock, where kids were riding long distances to magnet schools. Solving it would require money for extra buses and additional drivers that the state educational system had shown no willingness to provide.
Most of us think of pupil busing -- when we think of it at all -- as a desegregation issue from the 1970s and 1980s that has largely receded into the background. But in the current century, busing has generated serious new concerns that school officials are largely powerless to defuse. One of them is travel time. Another one is cost.
In 2011, families in Indiana’s Franklin Township sued their local government because it had stopped providing students with free bus transportation back and forth to school. The township said its budget, battered by spending cutbacks in the aftermath of the Great Recession, couldn’t handle the expense. A Superior Court judge sided with the township, but an appeals court reversed the verdict and the matter is now before the Indiana Supreme Court.
The township has gone back to providing the service, under direction from the state legislature, and the plaintiffs have opted to home-school their children, but the dispute remains alive. Meanwhile, the National Center for Education Statistics has reported that in 2008-2009, the last school year for which data are available, it cost $871 on average for a school district to offer free bus service for one student for one year. For a sprawling district covering far-flung communities, that can amount to millions of dollars.
Several districts around the country find themselves in a predicament similar to the one in Franklin Township. At least 12 states allow school systems to make up budget shortfalls by charging for pupil transportation. The public schools in Colorado’s Jefferson County, the largest school district in the state, with 84,000 students, charge an annual fee of $150 for one child’s bus rides for the school year. In 2014, Jefferson County schools took in $1.4 million from transportation fees, just short of a $1.5 million goal.
Other districts have attempted to save money by agreeing to bus students only if they live more than a specified distance from the school -- usually about a mile or more. This has saved some of them a significant amount of money, but it has led to militant protests by parents who can’t believe they are being denied a service they had come to expect as matter of course.
All of this may sound like budget trivia far removed from the core of the nation’s fundamental educational challenges. But it is actually close to the center of the issue. Desperate to improve our public schools, we have invested heavily in charter and choice programs that send young children to distant parts of their cities, or sometimes far beyond the city limits. Mammoth new facilities have been built essentially in the middle of nowhere in the hope that their sheer size will foster ethnic diversity and that the plethora of expensive equipment will lead to a better education.
In much of the country, these decisions have all but obliterated the traditional idea of the neighborhood school. They have forced children to waste large amounts of their day taking long trips along suburban roads, sitting idly in urban traffic jams, or making lengthy treks to school on foot along busy and dangerous highways. They have imposed an unsustainable burden on school districts that have to pay for maintenance, gasoline and drivers’ salaries. It is a side effect of education reform, but it is one that has weakened school administration and made it harder rather than easier for the children to learn.
It will come as a surprise to many readers -- it was a surprise to me -- that there is a federal program meant to deal with some of these problems. The transportation act passed by Congress in 2005 created a Safe Routes to School program. It was designed expressly to make it possible for more children to walk or bike to school and to “improve safety and reduce traffic, fuel consumption and air pollution in the vicinity of schools.” There was a lot of work to do: In 1969, according to the Federal Highway Administration, 48 percent of the nation’s public school students walked to school. By 2009, following four decades of school sprawl, the number was 13 percent.
Safe Routes to School was given a decent amount of money -- it spent more than a billion dollars between 2005 and the end of 2012. Since 2012, it has continued on a more modest basis, with states controlling the distribution of money to local governments. It hasn’t prevented communities from building massive new educational facilities in inconvenient places, but it has fostered some interesting experiments aimed at getting students out of cars and buses and onto sidewalks and bicycles.
School officials in Baltimore, for example, decided to use $3 million in Safe Routes funding to place large green footprints along the sidewalk within 500 feet of five of its schools, marking out a safe passage around the dangers of urban traffic. Some parents said they found the design garish, but others said it made them more comfortable sending their kids to school on foot rather than putting them in cars. Baltimore residents are particularly sensitive to the risks of kids walking to school unsupervised: Their city ranks every year as one of the most dangerous in the country for pedestrian fatalities.
Other places have found more prosaic ways to spend their Safe Routes money. Traverse City, Mich., used its grant to create an after-school course in bicycle maintenance. Amherst, N.Y., spent Safe Routes funding on the creation of sidewalks along roadways where kids had been making their way to school in the middle of the street. Still other communities, encouraged by the Safe Routes program, have tried what they call “walking school buses” -- essentially lines of parents and kids moving down sidewalks together in safe and orderly formation.
Safe Routes strikes me as a defensible way for government to spend a billion dollars, but it avoids the most important issue. Once we make the deliberate decision to abandon neighborhood schools, we have set in motion a process in which massive inconvenience and wasted time are inevitable.
In the past few years, the closing of neighborhood schools has been most dramatic in the poorer and minority-dominated areas of large cities, where school pupils have been moved out of “failing” schools close to their homes and into charters, magnets or other facilities far outside any zone of walkability. In Washington, D.C., 45 percent of public school students attend charters scattered all over the city. In New Orleans, the number is close to 100 percent.
Parents who had been comfortable in their neighborhood schools have protested against this idea, arguing that the schools have provided an anchor for the local communities and that busing the students to distant facilities subjected them to unnecessary harassment and physical danger. In several cities, the protests have had political consequences: D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his job in 2010 largely because of resentment against school closings and other autocratic policies of his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel faced widespread backlash for his decision to close 50 of the city’s elementary schools at the start of the 2013 school year. Newark has faced a lawsuit and a long series of protest rallies over implementation of the “One Newark” plan, which would consolidate and relocate about a quarter of the city’s schools. “How am I going to get my five kids to five different schools by 8 in the morning?” one Newark parent complained at a 2014 rally. “This is the fourth school closing for my son. There’s no stability and that has a tremendous effect on them. This is really wrong.”
The fight against neighborhood school closings has been almost entirely a grassroots affair, but it has won support from a growing number of academic experts. Perhaps the most eloquent is Mark Naison, a history professor at Fordham University. “Destroying neighborhood institutions and the historic memory invested in them,” Naison wrote recently, “is a form of psychic violence that should not be underestimated. School closings and displacement of the people who worked in them are wreaking havoc with the lives of people who need stability, continuity and support more than continuous upheaval.”
Against protests like these, education reformers should be held to a high burden of proof. They must be able to show that the negative effects of taking children out of their familiar neighborhoods and sending them on long, tedious bus rides to strange surroundings are overridden by the educational benefits they receive when they reach their destination.
Do those benefits exist? Or have we created a symptom that is worse than the disease it seeks to cure? I will leave you to answer that question for yourself.