If you think that student transportation is tricky for school districts—and there are  numerous sources broadcasting that message—try being a kid or a parent. Access to that yellow bus can make or break the success of school choice in a given city or region. New research from the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) adds more evidence to the growing pile that shows that old ways of managing school transportation are inadequate for education, and especially to support choice, in the twenty-first century.

Authors Julia Budick-Will, Mark L. Stein, and Jeffrey Grigg look into the travails of students in Baltimore with a study ominously titled “Danger on the Way to School,” published in the journal Sociological Science last month. It provides a stark though sometimes exaggerated picture of what high school students in Baltimore City Public Schools endure just to arrive on time, and the potentially high costs to them to do so. All Baltimore district high schools are schools of choice, and the district provides free public transit passes (city buses and two separate rail systems) rather than traditional yellow bus service for high schoolers living more than 1.5 miles from their school. The universal-choice structure in Baltimore is characterized as a complicating factor in the BERC analysis, but it is ultimately helpful for putting the local results into a wider context.

Baltimore experienced an uptick in its crime rates across the city in 2014 and 2015, and based on previous findings, the BERC research team hypothesized that the levels of violence experienced in different parts of the city could affect school attendance; the more violent crime reported in the areas through which students travel, the more likely they would be to miss school.

The data, which included 4,200 first-time freshmen during the 2014–15 school year, bore this out. The average student in the study attended school in a neighborhood where eighty-seven violent crimes were reported during the academic year but lived in a neighborhood where ninety-five violent crimes were reported during the same period. Students passed streets in transit vehicles where there were forty-one violent crimes during the school year, on average, and passed streets on foot where there were twenty-seven violent crimes.

The researchers hypothesized that higher rates of absenteeism would correlate with high-crime areas at or near the places where students were commuting outside of vehicles—walking from home to a bus stop, changing modes of transit outdoors, etc. The average student traveled thirty-six minutes from home to school with an average of 1.8 stops per trip, meaning that most students had at least two points at which they were commuting on foot every day.

While exposure to dangerous streets while riding in a public transit vehicle did not correlate with absenteeism, nor did exposure to high-property-crime streets—as opposed to those with high rates of violent crime—exposure to high-crime areas while commuting on foot did correlate with the absenteeism data. On average, a 1 percent increase in walking violence exposure predicted a 0.10 percent increase in absenteeism, or 1.9 additional missed days, on average. These results remained after adjusting for student demographics, prior attendance, violent crime around homes and schools, and unobserved differences related to school preference and neighborhood selection.

On the upside, all 4,200 students in the study persevered and remained in their chosen high school for the full year despite their dangerous commutes. On the downside, an additional 2,160 students were excluded from the final analysis because they did not persevere. Their reasons for switching schools were not included, which is unfortunate because their experiences would surely be telling. The limited data provided on those students ultimately excluded raise questions about the interplay between transportation and a successful school choice infrastructure far above the safety factor germane to the study. Additional issues to consider along with the results: the hypothetical nature of the routes to school used in the study; the assumed level of “danger” perceived by students traveling in daylight through areas where violent crime only happens at night; the researchers’ assumption of stress and trauma in kids due to reported crime; and the lack of inclusion of students utilizing choice via charters and private schools.

Ultimately, the effects of student commuters’ exposure to street-level violence is just one more piece of evidence that existing public transit systems—designed to bring adults from home to work centers, still via twentieth-century travel patterns—are inadequate for school transportation. These systems are forbidden by federal law from changing to adapt to student needs and should not be seen as anything more than a Band-Aid fix for the ills of district-based busing. In an age of high demand for school choice in cities—and increasingly in exurban and suburban areas, as well—the evidence in favor of scratch-built and separately-funded student- and family-centric transportation from door to door, regardless of school governance type, could not be clearer.

SOURCE: Julia Budick-Will, Mark L. Stein, and Jeffrey Grigg, “Danger on the Way to School: Exposure to Violent Crime, Public Transportation, and Absenteeism,” Sociological Science (February 2019).

Jeff Murray comes to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute from a five-year stint at School Choice Ohio. At SCO, Jeff was involved with getting the word out to parents around the state about school voucher availability - directing postcard campaigns, call centers, and advertising campaigns over the last few years. Tens of thousands of parents across Ohio received the news…

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