One of the hot topics this election year is whether to let families use tax dollars to send their children to alternative schools. Whatever name it goes by — school choice, charter schools, vouchers, opportunity scholarships or tuition tax credits — it’s been a controversial issue for several years now. And as much as I like to avoid controversy, school choice is a topic that I feel student transportation professionals need to get involved in. A family’s ability to choose its children’s school directly affects our ability to provide a safe ride for those children. So wherever you may stand on the subject, it’s one you need to know more about. That way, if someone starts talking about changes in how and where children receive their schooling, you can be a source of information — not about the appropriateness of their proposal, but about the impact on young people and the true costs of adapting the transportation program.
Programs vary widely
The National School Transportation Association has done research and found that some kinds of choice — magnet schools, for instance, or schools-within-schools or inter-district transfers — are permitted in all 50 states. In two-thirds of the states, the Legislature has gone further, perhaps by authorizing charter schools or permitting tax dollars that normally would go to the public schools to go to a private school instead. It seems certain that the number of states involved and the variety of programs will continue to grow. I firmly believe that our best move is to be aware of the political and legal issues but to remain above the fray. We need to be ready to step into the discussion and use our expertise to look out for children’s safety on the way to and from school — regardless of who may be running the school that’s at the end of the route. While several states have incorporated transportation into school-choice legislation, I was surprised by how many seem to have ignored it. Legislatures have considered whether nonpublic schools may participate in interscholastic athletics, but not how young people will be transported to away games or who will pay for the ride. One key element of most school choice programs is that funding follows the student. In some states, though, the young person’s former district continues to be responsible for transportation. In other locales, families are responsible for their own transportation, which has put thousands of children on public transit. Another appeal of charter schools is their exemption from certain regulations. In Florida, the Legislature specifically said they still must adhere to rules affecting the safety of student transportation, while other states have left the issue open — which sends chills up and down my spine.
Transportation gets left out
I want to emphasize that the problem isn’t with charter schools or vouchers. It’s with implementation — especially if that implementation doesn’t provide for safe, adequate transportation. What’s worse, the divisive, emotional, politically charged nature of the debate over choice often makes it difficult to even raise legitimate issues. A rational question like, “How are these transfer students going to get to and from school?” could easily be interpreted as an attack on the idea of school choice. If questions come up that you feel need to be considered, I’d recommend two courses of action. First, don’t take sides: Monitor the debate closely, but avoid potentially divisive public comments. Second, work behind the scenes to make sure school administrators understand the transportation issues, and be proactive, making your point before school choice is on the front burner and has begun to polarize school officials, parents and other interest groups.
Terry Thomas is president of Community Bus Service in Youngstown, Ohio, and is also president of the National School Transportation Association, the professional association of school bus contractors.