Column

The route school buses can take toward racial equity

A Washington, D.C. public transportation program can be a national model

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

Kids go to school to get an education, and in part to increase their future job opportunities, not limit their parents’ prospects in the process. But how they get to school is a crucial, underappreciated detail that can make a world of difference to the communities where schools are located.

Earlier this month, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser announced an update to the city’s Kids Ride Free program that will smooth out kinks to an otherwise model program that others should emulate. The program enhances the program that allows students to move around in a city known for its traffic and congestion. In D.C., all students between the ages of 5 and 21 who attend school, including charters and private schools, are eligible to ride the bus systems (Metrobus, DC Circulator) and rail system (Metrorail) to school and school related activities for free. Students aren’t limited to a certain number of rides or stops, school days or times, the way they are in other cities such as New Orleans and Pittsburgh.

Under the new system, instead of needing a separate student ID card, students will be able to tap a version of a standard issue SmarTrip Card, used for public transportation in and around the city. The new card system makes it more convenient for parents to properly enroll their children in Kids Ride Free and facilitates better accounting of who is using public transportation.

Allowing kids to ride public transportation for free reflects how students actually live and learn. Students don’t live in schools. They live and learn in communities. We limit students’ educations when we curb their access to museums, libraries, community events and other places where learning happens. What good is a city flush with national monuments and museums if students across town can’t access it without hopping on a bus and switching to a train to reach it? Families need access not just to school, but also to quality afterschool programs, sports and other recreational activities, and they need their children back home in time for dinner.

Having students ride for free just makes good sense. We should do it everywhere.

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A 2018 report from the Urban Institute, a think tank that focuses on cities, showed that “[c]ities that can more quickly deliver students to school tend to rely more on public transportation to transport students. In cities with less-efficient transportation, students are more likely to be offered yellow bus service.” The report found that in D.C. and New York, cities that are very reliant on public transportation as opposed to bus services, an average 10-minute car ride to a school equates to 23 minutes by public transport. However, in Detroit, Denver and New Orleans, which have school systems that are more dependent on yellow buses, a 10-minute drive takes 32 to 34 minutes by public transportation. D.C. and New York showed better results than New Orleans largely because of their expansive subway systems, which are much more efficient for longer routes to school. However, students in all cities, regardless of the efficiency of their public transport, need to be able to get to school in a reasonable amount of time. All of our cities need to find ways to reduce the time it takes kids to get to school.

In addition to providing benefits to schools, affordable and accessible public transportation enables people to get to and from work, a critical component in reducing racial income disparities.

D.C.’s population is extremely diverse, but there are sizable income disparities between its two largest ethnic groups — and a lack of free transportation can exacerbate this. African Americans represent 48 percent of D.C.’s population and whites account for 40 percent, according to my analysis of 2016 U.S. Census data from the American Community Survey. The African American median household income was $40,560 compared to $119,564 for whites. The black unemployment rate was 16.8 percent, with a labor force participation rate of 58.4 percent. White unemployment on the other hand was 3.1 percent, with a labor force participation rate of 79.7 percent. More than a quarter of all blacks (26.4 percent) fall below the poverty line, as compared to 7.9 of all white D.C. residents.

Parents who have to accompany their children to school, especially low-income parents who might be working minimum-wage jobs that don’t allow for flexible schedules, don’t have the additional time and resources to sit in a car, bus or subway. The more time parents spend getting their children to school, the fewer job options they have. If cities are ever going to achieve racial equity that is reflected in earning power, they must create efficiencies in other critical areas such as transportation that affects family income. Parents don’t get paid for sitting on a bus or in a car getting their children to school.

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Transportation is also a workforce issue. Workers are consistently late because of excessive delays, dropping off and picking up children. Schools’ transportation offerings have to be considered as part of the overall economic and workforce development strategy in the city.

If you don’t think transportation options matter, look at what happens when school systems don’t address their students’ mobility needs.

A drama played out in recent months in New Orleans that illuminated just this situation. In April, Shawn Toranto, the chief executive officer of charter management organization Einstein Charter Schools, stepped down, signaling defeat in a legal battle with the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), in which Einstein refused to provide yellow-bus service to the families it served. OPSB sued Einstein in Civil District Court last year, claiming Einstein’s refusal amounted to a breach of contract. Instead, Einstein issued Regional Transit Authority (RTA) vouchers to families who requested them for students of the four schools it operated, all located in an out-of-the-way eastern section of the city. (The RTA oversees the bus and street car systems in New Orleans.) While it’s true that the rising cost of yellow school buses gnaw at the meat of school budgets, schools in New Orleans sneakily use it as an excuse to not provide bus service. It’s their way of filtering out families who don’t have a car.

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New Orleans is an all-charter school district, in which students from any part of the city can apply to any school they want; any family theoretically has access to Einstein’s schools. In practice, though, there are many ways to cull the herd, and Einstein appears to have used at least one of them. The charter group’s blanket refusal to dedicate school buses to students forced people without cars to hire private van services at $40 per week, drive their children to school in personal cars or spend inordinate amounts of time on public buses to get their kids to school, which means that parents were forced to give up chunks of the work day, or not take certain jobs, or resort to part-time work, in order to ensure their kids got an education.

In an affidavit filed to the court in December of 2017, the Einstein group claimed yellow buses would cost $523,325, forcing them to cut “fourteen classroom teachers, one physical education teacher, two music teachers, one academic interventionist, and one blended learning writing, and literacy interventionist.”

However, they failed to acknowledge that passing those costs onto parents is also unacceptable. Einstein, which eventually settled the dispute out of court, agreed to reimburse parents for their transportation expenses through a $50,000 restitution fund, which has been criticized as representing less than half of the families who paid out of pocket for transportation services.

“I pay like $130, $140, every week for somebody to bring my kids to school,” one Einstein parent told the New Orleans newspaper the Advocate, which reported that the parent quit her job, giving up $320 per week, so she could drive her kids to school.

Low-income students can’t afford inefficient transportation services or school administrators who refuse to see beyond their own school’s welfare. Allowing students to ride free on public transportation is just a start to a larger conversation about moving families out of poverty. If we truly want to help children, we must support their families by using public transportation to move society toward racial and socioeconomic equity.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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