The Case for Transportation in Charter Schools
Charter schools are schools of choice. They offer a public alternative to assigned schools for families. Having another school option is important, especially for families whose neighborhood schools are not high-quality or are not a good fit. Families that lack personal access to reliable transportation face a barrier when attempting to access a charter school that does not provide transportation. This may lead to inequities: transportation usually comes at a cost that can pose a significant burden for low-income families and impact their choice of school.
What Transportation Means in Today’s Context
For many, the mention of school transportation elicits visions of classic yellow buses stopping to pick up students directly outside their front doors. However, school transportation often looks different today. Take New York City, for example. The New York Department of Education (DOE) provides transportation to all city students who live more than 0.5 miles from their school, regardless of whether they attend a traditional school, charter school, or even non-public school. Some students are eligible for yellow bus transport, but most students are provided with a free MetroCard that allows them to ride the city’s subways and buses to school.
In San Antonio, the school district uses what is known as a hub system. There are multiple bus stops all over the city. After students are picked up from a stop, they are driven to a hub where they transfer to another bus that takes them to their school.
Gone are the days when student transportation automatically meant door-to-door, yellow bus service. When considering student transportation, authorizers and charter schools can and should think creatively.
Authorizing and Transportation
As important as this issue is to ensuring equitable access, some states say nothing in law on charter school transportation. Currently, only 16 states have laws that lay out how transportation must be provided to charter students. Others don’t require transportation but do require the school to address transportation in their charter school application. However, NACSA research shows that in states that do not require transportation, only 25 percent of new school proposals included transportation plans.
Here’s where authorizers can step in to ensure access and equity, with good charter school policy as the foundation for authorizers’ regulations and practices. Transportation policies don’t need to be identical in every state, especially since state contexts vary, but the issue should be addressed in ways that put student needs first.
Is It Okay Not to Provide Transportation?
While choice and transportation tend to go hand-in-hand, there may be certain circumstances where not providing transportation would have little impact on accessibility. For example, if a charter school is designed to serve an extremely small geographic area, the overwhelming majority of families within that area may be able to access the school by walking or other non-school-provided transportation.
Additionally, there are some school districts that simply do not provide transportation to any students. For example, in Indiana, state law allows districts to end busing with three years notice to families. Some Indiana school districts have announced that they will seek to terminate transportation services due to costs. If a district does not provide transportation to any of its students, it may not be fair to expect charter schools within that district to provide transportation either.
Charter school transportation law and how it is implemented can be impacted by a variety of contextual factors, including but not limited to:
- The educational program offered by a school
- The availability of mass transit
- The location of a school and whether students can safely walk there
- The impact that a lack of transportation will have on school segregation
Given that state contexts widely differ, authorizing policy on transportation may vary. However, NACSA offers the following policy guidance:
Require transportation plans.
State lawmakers should require charter schools to have transportation plans. These plans can include multiple ways that enable students to travel to school. It should be clear if the plan applies to all students, or just those within the boundaries of the district or catchment area. If a school does not plan on providing transportation, it should have to give a rationale.
Allow for flexibility—both for authorizers and for schools.
Authorizers are in a unique position to understand the landscapes in which they are approving charter schools and authorize in a way that is community responsive. Therefore, state laws should give authorizers the ability to require charter schools to provide transportation that is in line with, but does not exceed, transportation options provided at other public schools. Additionally, with other forms of transportation beyond yellow bus door-to-door service, policies should allow schools to determine what forms of transportation will best meet student and school needs.
If lawmakers require charter schools to provide transportation, state law should also provide adequate funds to cover the cost of such services. This allocation can look differently depending on the state. For example, the New York Department of Education covers all transportation costs for New York City schools, both traditional and charter. In other places, state laws include transportation funds as part of the per-pupil dollars that are allocated to charters. When no transportation funds are provided, such as in Detroit, charter schools are forced to make significant financial trade-offs and may opt to not provide transportation in order to address other equity issues, such as quality teacher recruitment. Adequate funding can prevent such untenable dilemmas.
Charter schools have a unique opportunity to break down barriers and open doors to all families. However, that isn’t possible if entry is limited to those with the resources to get their child to school—a risk, if schools do not help families, especially economically disadvantaged ones, access transportation. Authorizers can and should facilitate equitable access to all charter schools via transportation, and state laws and policies need to be in place to support authorizers in making this happen.
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