Bellwether Education Partners, long interested in the improvement of school transportation systems, released no less than three papers on the topic this summer. One of them, “Intersection Ahead,” looks at choice-based racial integration efforts through a transportation lens.
School choice efforts such as charters and vouchers are still a long way from fulfilling their primary purpose—increasing the number of quality school seats for the neediest underserved students—but authors Phillip Burgoyne-Allen, Bonnie O’Keefe, and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess focus specifically on schools of choice designed with another purpose: reducing racial segregation in their cities. They provide three case studies—a magnet system in North Carolina, a “diverse-by-design” charter network in Kansas, and a “controlled choice” model in Kentucky. For each, the authors explain the myriad ways that leaders are trying to facilitate more integrated classrooms, and the many challenges they’re facing. One of biggest issues, and the focus of the paper, is how to effectively and efficiently get prospective or enrolled students to the schools they want to attend. This is an issue for all schools of choice that are trying to achieve any positive end.
Magnet schools enroll students in specialized programs—be it math, science, art, etc.—from larger geographies than traditional school assignment zones, either serving an entire district or multiple districts in a region, with entry often via lottery. The breadth of geographic coverage, and often the quality of magnet schools, ensure that they are attractive to a wide cross-section of students. Some magnets, like the system in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools profiled in one case study, have been engineered specifically to boost integration. Admission, for example, hinges on an index comprising five socioeconomic indicators: household income, educational attainment, English being spoken in the home, homeownership, and single versus multi-adult households. And based on the existing diversity of a magnet school, priority for new admissions is given to students at whatever indicator levels are needed to maintain the desired diversity level. Because these systems exist in tandem with more traditional assignment zone schools, districts must literally drive far and wide to meet students’ needs. Mitigating efforts like staggered bell schedules and efficient pickup locations can help, the report says. But costly and time-intensive routes seem mostly unavoidable, and therefore hamper magnets’ contribution to integration.
The second case study covers Crossroads Charter Schools in Kansas City, Missouri, which are “diverse-by-design,” meaning they’re committed to student diversity in their mission and have achieved a certain level of diversity within their actual enrollment. Location decisions, when those can be controlled, can assist greatly in achieving a charter’s mission of diversity, but can often wreak havoc with transportation. The Crossroads schools are located in a downtown area where space was available but population density remains low. Getting any students to simply attend, let alone a diverse group of them, required the school to create its own transportation network from the start via fundraising and partnerships with other charters. But ultimately, the students bore the cost of increased diversity, not the schools. “The reality is that the low-income student across town has to wake up earlier and catch the bus, whereas a more affluent student closer to our schools might have a parent drive them and get an extra hour of sleep,” said Courtney Hughley, chief operating officer at Crossroads. As with the aforementioned magnet systems, there are ways to mitigate these effects, but they’re largely unavoidable as long as children live far from the schools they want to attend.
The final case study is of the “controlled choice” model in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Kentucky. The populous and sprawling district has several large school-assignment zones. Residents can only attend schools in their zone, but each has a number of school choices—especially at the elementary level. Individual schools have a “diversity index” that includes average household income, racial breakdown, and family educational attainment. Families rank their choices and are assigned based on those rankings and how their attendance would affect a school’s diversity index. The transportation requirements are, obviously, enormous. JCPS provides all transportation and employs a “depot model,” wherein many students must travel to transfer points and change buses daily to and from school. Without it, the district’s school choice system and diversity efforts would not work. Data show that JCPS’s transportation is more efficient overall than its description might suggest, but much of that financial efficiency rests on the sacrifices of the youngest students in the district—elementary students who must travel farthest and transfer twice each day. Throw in fog, snow, or rain, and those real “costs” surely become apparent.
The key recommendations from the Bellwether—adequate and equitable funding; innovation, planning, and technology; and partnerships among districts, charters, and other community organizations supporting families—make sense. They’d generally make any transportation system more efficient. But a well-funded and cost-effective school transportation system—even one that leads to increases in quality and integration—that requires poor kids to wake up before dawn, transfer buses, and ride for two hours is not a win for families. They’re bearing most of the costs. A better system would include a collection of good schools near every child from which families could choose. But until we achieve that, “efficient” school transportation may, sadly, be the best we can do.
SOURCE: Phillip Burgoyne-Allen, Bonnie O’Keefe, and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, “Intersection Ahead: School Transportation, School Integration, and School Choice,” Bellwether Education Partners (August 2019).