If Cities Want Robust School Choice, They Need Robust Public Transit

More and more cities are becoming “high-choice” districts that provide students with many school options beyond the one assigned to their zip code. In places like DC, New York, and New Orleans, families can choose from a diverse array of school types, including traditional district, charter, and private schools.

But providing a wide range of school options for families also presents a related challenge: how to get kids to and from schools that are across town, rather than across the street.

School transportation plays a critical — and often overlooked — role in high-choice districts. Students in these places may experience longer commutes, but families may not have the resources or capacity to transport students across town on their own, making access to school choice inequitable. And for districts, providing the level of transportation service needed to support myriad school options can be an untenably expensive and logistically complicated proposition.

As a result, many high-choice districts, including several of those profiled in Bellwether’s Eight Cities project, leverage existing municipal public transit as part of their school transportation strategy. For example, in Washington, DC, the district does not provide any yellow bus service for general education students, with limited exceptions for certain student populations. Instead, public, charter, and private school students ages 5-21 who are DC residents can ride for free on Metrobus, DC Circulator, and Metrorail within the city through the “Kids Ride Free” program. Students can use their public transit passes as many times as they want and at all hours of the day.

New York City uses a combination of yellow bus service and public transit to provide transportation for public, charter, and private school students. Students are eligible for either yellow bus service or free public transit passes if they live a half mile or more from their school. The district provides yellow bus service for some students in grades K-6, as well as students enrolled in public schools of choice that live within the same borough as their school. All NYC students who live a half mile or more from their school are eligible for free public transit passes. Student MetroCards can be used on subways and buses for three trips and three transfers each school day, enough to travel to school, to an after-school activity, and then back home.

New Orleans provides the most expansive school choice of any district in the country. The vast majority of the city’s public schools are independently managed as charter schools, enrolling 95% of public school students. However, unlike DC and NYC, New Orleans lacks a robust public transit system that can help transport students. For this reason, all public school students in New Orleans are eligible for yellow bus service if they live more than a mile from their school. Each charter management organization manages its own transportation services, typically by contracting with school bus operators. As a result of the increased distance traveled by students, the number of different transportation agreements, and the lack of robust public transit, transportation costs for New Orleans schools have risen substantially and are among the largest overhead expenses for charter organizations.

To be sure, simply relying on public transit is not a panacea for meeting students’ transportation needs. Young children may not be able to use public transit on their own without adult supervision, which can be a daily burden for parents. And the door-to-door service that yellow buses often provide can be important to families with concerns about their children’s safety while in transit.

But as more districts allow students to choose from a variety of schools, they must also consider how students will actually access those schools each day. Districts like DC and NYC are able to adequately support a high degree of school choice in part because of their robust public transit systems. New Orleans, along with other districts that provide a wide range of school options without a transit system, are likely to face logistical and fiscal transportation challenges for the foreseeable future. If these districts intend to adequately support school choice, it will require substantial and sustained investment in school transportation, an option that may not be feasible for cash-strapped districts already struggling with other budget priorities.

This piece was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvements.