Kids in Indiana will head back to school as usual this fall, but the sight of classic yellow school buses could soon become less common, thanks to a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court. Yes, school districts must offer free education that’s open to all, but as the court wrote in a decision this spring, “the [state] framers did not intend for every aspect of public education to be free.” In other words, districts don’t have to provide transportation.
The case dates back to 2011, when Franklin Township, Ind., an Indianapolis suburb facing a $16 million deficit, opted to terminate its school bus services. The move prompted a lawsuit from parents that would eventually make its way to the state Supreme Court, but it also led the Indiana General Assembly to pass a law allowing districts to end busing after issuing three years’ notice.
Additionally, schools that could prove extreme financial hardship could also petition the state Department of Education for an immediate closure; so far, only one district applied for immediate closure, and it was denied.
Franklin Township felt as if it had no other choice, and other school districts in the state found themselves in a similar position. After Indiana voters approved strict property tax caps in 2010, which had been introduced by the legislature, districts have had to rely on passing local funding referenda every few years. But Franklin’s referendum was rejected by voters. The township even tried imposing student fees to fund bus service, but the legislature outlawed that with a 2012 law that prohibited charges for transportation but allowed them for athletics and other activities.
All of this makes Indiana a bit of an outlier. More states are allowing districts to charge fees for transportation; only a few expressly allow schools to phase out busing entirely. About a dozen states allow transportation fees to be imposed on a statewide basis, and Hawaii actually requires them. In California, busing is required only under specific circumstances or with certain student populations. Both funding and ridership there have plummeted over the last decade as a result. (All states are required by federal law to provide busing for students in special education programs.)
No one comprehensively tracks which states require busing, but Ronna Weber with the National School Transportation Association says she’s not aware of any state that “affirmatively declares that its public schools may decline to provide school transportation service to its students.”
“Even if states have similar laws on their books, giving them flexibility,” Weber says, “they don’t usually move in that direction, and we certainly don’t support it.”
The mixed message from the Indiana legislature -- allowing districts to end busing but prohibiting fees that could preserve it -- has rankled local officials. But so far they’re not rushing to end bus service. Three districts have issued their notice of intent to do so, but none in the weeks following the court’s decision in March. Another, Beech Grove, had issued its mandatory three years’ notice but then held a funding referendum in May: In a district where more than half of the students are in poverty, the referendum passed with 76 percent approval.
That means Beech Grove won’t be phasing out bus service. Paul Kaiser, the superintendent, says the high stakes were never meant as an electoral ploy because his city has a good record of supporting school funding. But for other communities, the termination of bus service could be just a referendum or two away. “There are just some communities where they won’t pass” any measure to raise funding, he says. “I think schools are going to be forced to reduce transportation.”