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We don't need no transportation

Door to door transportation for K-12 students may seem to be a compassionate policy from a society that values both students and education. That may be the intent, but the transportation mandate ultimately takes money from classrooms to subsidize our inefficient, post-WW II development pattern. In the end, it also devalues traditional, neighborhood schools in favor of the remote, campus-style we now build. A Strong Towns approach would be dramatically different.

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We were heading into town for swimming lessons on Saturday when I drove by one of the old elementary schools I went to as a kid. It's name -- Lincoln Elementary -- tells you that it is old. Back in the day we used to name schools after people we admired. Today we name them in cheerful commemoration of the places we had to destroy in order to build them. For instance, the newest school in my district is called Forestview, which was built in the clear cut forest across from my old family farm (took out a couple of my old tree forts in the process). In the neighboring school district they have Eagle View Elementary. The only eagles you will see there were built by the Chrysler motor company in the 1990's.

There are many other differences that are more significant, but for today I want to focus on transportation. Busing, something that the students that used to attend Lincoln school did not need but which the children of Forestview must have.

Understand that my parents still live on the old farm, and they are the house closest to Forestview. Since they could not not walk there safely on a school day, it is fair to say that few children could. That is not to suggest that Lincoln Elementary is safe. It is not. The street outside the front door -- literally feet from the door - was made into a highway. It is a chicken or egg argument as to whether the drop in enrollment at Lincoln was the cause of or a product of the neighborhood becoming inhospitable for families (at least those with a choice). Either way, Lincoln is now closed, the playground soon to be turned into a parking lot (a higher use, by local standards).

So like most districts across the country, especially those in small towns or suburban areas, students arrive at their local school by bus or by car. A few will walk. In fact, my school district's policy is to only pick up those students that live further than a mile from their school. This was increased from a half mile a couple of years ago as a cost-cutting measure. We have written about the glaring inequity and perverse incentives of this system before.

Like nearly every American school district, ours is struggling with how to do more with less. And not just more, but much, much more. And not just less, but much, much less. This is not a post about education policy, but conservative columnist George Will made some amazing points recently when praising the efforts of Obama-appointed Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Improving the educational performance of our youth in an age of austerity may be our generation's defining challenge.

So here's an idea I'll toss out from the Strong Towns mindset: How about we rethink our approach to busing?

Again, I'm not trying to get into a broader discussion on race. I'm not thinking that big. If you want to knock me down for my ignorance, please do. But hear me out first.

The State of Minnesota -- and I suspect this holds for most, if not all, states - requires school districts to provide transportation to all students in their district. The districts are given money for this undertaking. The mandate is fairly loose - at least loose enough where districts can exempt some kids that live close and charge fees for kids involved in activities that ride alternative schedules. Nonetheless, if a child wants to ride the bus, the school has to pick them up and drop them off.

As school budgets have been squeezed, districts have found creative ways to shift funding from transportation into the classroom. Such tactics have drawn the ire of our friends at MN2020, who have written a report calling for the establishment of a separate fund for transportation that could not be shifted to other causes.

Our latest report, Wrong Way: Minnesota's School Transportation Funding Disparities, explores how disinvestment forces district administrators statewide to either siphon funds from transportation to pay for basic needs or shift classroom dollars to cover getting students to and from school.

District leaders make budget-balancing decisions that include adopting four-day school weeks, cutting routes which lengthens time spent on buses, adding a fee or outright eliminating transportation for after school activities and increasing the distance from school that the district offers busing.

But, respectfully, what if MN2020 has it wrong? What if we went the other way and shifted all transportation funding into the classroom? We if we ended the mandate for schools to provide transportation?

If you look at the MN2020 report, districts that have neighborhood schools in higher density, walkable areas actually have a surplus in transportation spending they can use for other needs. In contrast, large rural districts and suburban/exurban districts run huge deficits, taking money from the classroom to fund transportation.

Let's ask a pointed question: How many of the students in those rural, suburban and exurban districts live and work on farms? In other words, what percentage of their parents must be located in a remote area for their livelihood?

I don't know the answer, but my experience here in Minnesota tells me it is a very small percentage. I'd guess less than 3%. This means the remainder live far from school due to personal preference. In the free market, they have selected a remote location that requires school districts, mandated to provide transportation, to take money from classrooms to pick up and drop off their kids.

This is an important observation. By mandating that school districts provide free transport to all kids, regardless of any other circumstance, we have created a situation where parents do not have any incentive to consider the true cost of their choice when they decide where to live. They can live two blocks from school or twenty miles from school, the cost to them is the same: nothing.

What if we asked those non-farm parents to pick up the tab? What if that money could be redirected to the classroom? Using my local school district as an example, the numbers could be huge.

If I am reading the budget right, we are going to spend $3.4 million in transportation costs this year. That seems in line with the costs reported in the MN2020 report. With a starting teacher in the district making roughly $41,000 in salary and benefits, we could add over 80 new teachers right now if we stopped subsidizing transportation. That would be a 20% increase in staffing, potentially a game-changing amount.

Here's my proposal: What if we abolished the mandate that schools provide transportation to all students, but required them to still provide it to children that lived on farms (or whose families had careers that required them to live in a remote location)? For all other children, transportation would be provided as a fee-for-service offering. We then subsidize children from poor families (many of whom live close to the old schools anyway).

Besides the fact that it is nearly politically impossible to get people to pay for something they have been receiving for free, what are the objections?

It makes no sense that we continue to abandon neighborhood schools in favor of these remote campuses that require every child to be bused to. The only reason this continues to happen is that we've made transportation a sunk cost -- money a district has to spend regardless --  and so the cheapest way to do it is to make it large-scale efficient. In the meantime, the transportation mandate is simply another perverse incentive for people to make lifestyle choices that ultimately have huge, financial costs to society.

The current calculus is going to change dramatically when gas goes to $4 per gallon and higher. You'll hear school administrators and lawmakers howl that we are forcing all of these financial burdens onto the schools, robbing the classrooms of funds, and that they need ever-more money to provide ever-declining service.

Here's your money. We just need the guts to start building Strong Towns.


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Reader Comments (9)

I have no issues with what you are discussing and tend to agree, yet I see one major item overlooked in your article, that of the federal requirement to desegregate schools. In many jurisdictions, this requirement was the beginning of the high transportation costs being borne by school districts as they determined that the only way to comply with the requirement to desegregate schools was to bus students around to achieve the required mix. Any discussion of reduction in transportation costs by stopping or reducing the busing of students will bring up issues of racism in more culturally diverse areas (MN is 87% white, compared to 66% http://www.statehealthfacts.org/profileind.jsp?cmprgn=35&cat=1&rgn=25&ind=6&sub=1) It is not a pretty topic, but one that must be addressed.

Wake County, a Raleigh, NC school district recently voted to go back to neighborhood schools, and they are catching heat on a national level as a result. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-diversity-20110206,0,5064809.story

How can a reversion to neighborhood schools as a means to reducing transportation costs co-exist with the mandate to ensure racially diverse student populations? Especially when people, by choice, choose to live among people like themselves and therefore the neighborhoods are naturally segregated?

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertnrkitect

Budgeting and funding stirs up such a hornets nest of social values that its difficult to wrap ones head around the myriad proposals for reform. What role does traditional zoning play with regard to contemporary school campus siting? I'm also wondering to what extent Wall Street plays a role - the school district still needs to go to the bond market to secure funding for school construction - buildings (and presumably siting) is shoe-horned into a formula that determines conformity and then release of funds at a competitive rate. If a project does not conform it does not get funded or it gets funded at a higher interest rate.

Good luck though in trying to rationalize the land-use patterns of suburbia through school transportation funding. Its highly creative and I like it.

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMitchell Brown

An interesting question, Chuck. This hits home because my household would be one of those "non-farm" rural households that requires a great amount of busing for three boys (27 miles one way; our kindergartener has a 90-minute ride). Now can I, Mr. College Instructor Man of Letters, afford to pay such a fee for my chosen lifestyle? Yes, I can, and I might even be incentivized to pay MORE if it would shorten my kids' bus ride. The people who come to mind though are some of my neighbors, folks whose parents work, for example, at the local cafe and seasonal excavating. Half as much income. Their house is where it is because the grandparents live near there and provide day care or maybe dad is just a big hunter/fisherman. If your mission is to get them to live in town, down the street from a neighborhood school, you would find all sorts of problems. The fee would simply be a hardship, not an incentive to change lifestyles.

Again, not dismissing the idea of neighborhood schools or contained development in general. I think I can get behind that. But the story of the woods is the haves and have-nots. Most of the families in the woods with kids are have-nots. In my observation, anyway.

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Brown

"Their house is where it is because the grandparents live near there and provide day care or maybe dad is just a big hunter/fisherman."

Rural and suburban residents have become so accustomed to accessing the benefits of city life from afar that they think they are somehow entitled to it. Who says the grandparents can't move to town too? There's also nothing that says the hunter/fisherman should burden the rest of his family for the majority of the year just to satisfy his own hobby. If hunting is so important, then a small cabin can be maintained out somewhere in the woods for weekend visits, but the main house will just have to be in town. Its not an insurmountable problem, but people need to realize that their chosen way of life may simply not be affordable anymore and will have to be adjusted.

The issue of busing and desegregation is a big one that's much harder to tackle though. It's basically antithetical to the neighborhood school where neighborhoods are racially segregated to begin with. There's also the issue of just what role schools have in our society. A reason for concentrating kids on large school campuses, especially as you get into high school, is so there's more efficiency in providing services that might not be economical or even possible at all in smaller schools. Things like gifted classes, focused art programs, special education, clubs, and sports may only be viable as a district-wide program, while individual neighborhood schools wouldn't have enough kids to populate most of those programs, let alone the faculty to support them. How do you address the desire for those things at a smaller neighborhood school? It may not be such a big deal for elementary or middle schools, but it's definitely an issue for high schools.

This is somewhere we need to maybe look abroad at what other places do. We look to Europe or Japan for urban planning examples, mass transit, etc., but how many people really know how their schools work? Things like school sports are almost unheard of (aside from phys. ed.), and any kids who want to play sports do so in independent leagues. Extended art courses, clubs, etc. can also be done outside of school as well. Special education is a little more touchy, as it has a component of equality that makes separating it from the general student body a bit less palatable. How are all these things handled in other countries?

Overall, eliminating the transportation mandate is one of those things that sounds like a great idea, but it's a case where success will be in the details.

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Really good point. I agree. As previous commenters point out, there are some overlapping issues that also need to be addressed. For example, the disparity in funding between different schools, and the fact that this disparity often correlates with race. A lot of this disparity is due to our tax structure and the way schools are funded.

I think most kids live within a reasonable walking or biking distance of their school, even in many suburban and rural areas (Aaron Brown's 27mi. being an exception). If you put the money for buses into INTELLIGENTLY promoting walking and biking to school, I bet it would pay for itself pretty quickly, as well as make a healthier community and a more empowered population. And if kids are traveling 20-30mi. to school, then why shouldn't they have a school closer to home?

Even if a school does decide to provide transportation to and from outlying areas, who says they have to do it in the extraordinarily inefficient and thoughtless way that they commonly do it now? There are many ways to transport kids to and from school, but we seem fixated on one of them. It is expensive, it is a waste of kids time, and as you pointed out, it creates a bad incentive that leads to more waste. And most buses are themselves very inefficient in terms of fuel and pollution.

With regard to poor suburban and rural families, I think that in order for a town to be a "string town", it must consider the needs of all residents. But that does not mean that everyone's needs must be accommodated with a single monolithic policy. How about putting some real thought and real work into it? With farming families for example, schools should be acquiring food from local farms anyway. If they did, that would mean regular travel between school and farm, and there is no reason that kids could not be included in the logistics.

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEli Damon

By the way, I love the part where you say, "We were heading into town ... across from my old family farm." And is your title meant as Pink Floyd reference?

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEli Damon

Awesome discussion. Just a quick thought....

Our approach is certainly not to cajole people to live in a certain way. We're more focused on creating an environment where the total cost of our decisions are reflected in the market. Right now we have so many things -- our subsidies of student transportation being one -- that mask the real cost. If those costs were real and not hidden, people would likely make different choices, but maybe not. That would be their choice.

February 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

I work in schools, so I'm going to have to be the one to disagree with you. Every additional neighborhood school adds a lot of costs that you're ignoring. Each building must be heated and maintained. Every building has to have a principal, secretary, nurse, cafeteria workers, gym teacher, art teacher, music teacher, playground and lunch aides, etc. Every school needs its own special education program and really should have its own gifted program. Every school has to have a copier, playground, gym equipment, etc. Every school should have a computer lab. The number of costs you're ignoring add up in a big way.

It's also ridiculous to punish people who don't have a choice. A kindergartener can not be expected to walk more than a mile to school- how many schools are you going to put in so that everyone can walk? What about when it's snowing? How do you expect people to pay the extra money that homes will cost after home values for places near the school go up? Does the person who doesn't have a car and can't afford the now even more expensive apartment near the school deserve to be punished for that? I was a latchkey kid- should my mother have been expected to buy three houses to be close to the elementary, middle, and high school so that my brothers and I could all walk home?

You've taken an idea that sounds good when it's simplified and ignored all the actual logistics.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMegan T.

Thanks everyone for the great conversation, especially Megan T. I appreciate your thoughts and would like to address some of your statements.

I agree with the notion that there are some quantities of scale with the large campus schools that are not inherent in local, neighborhood schools. This becomes even more acute the older the grades (there is more benefit for this for high school seniors than for first graders). This is a good point.

I would add to that, for consideration, that it is much cheaper to transport a music teacher or principle between schools than hundreds of kids. Many of the elementary schools in our district share principles today. Paying for them to travel between schools is a modest cost compared to busing.

And at the scale we are talking about, the other costs become fairly insignificant in comparison. For instance, our district could buy three brand new copy machines EVERY DAY with the money spent on transporting kids. By my estimate we could outfit two computer labs with just one day's worth of busing expense. The transportation subsidy is so massive it is hard to believe, and unfortunately it will only get bigger as fuel prices increase.

I'm with you on walking - right now our district makes kids walk a mile (more than a mile and you can ride the bus). This is particularly cruel when the path to school is so harsh for people walking. Over the past decades, we're retooled nearly every street to be auto-only zones. It does not make for safe, let alone enjoyable, walking. I feel for our kids in these neighborhoods.

But I go back and think about how we used to do things before we were such a rich country (since we're really not, we just act like it sometimes). What did we do? Well, kids walked. Our places were configured much differently then and this was not a problem. That is part of our larger point.

As you have indicated, and I agree, the value of homes would be higher near schools and lower further away from schools if transportation costs were passed on to the parents. This is an astute and very compelling observation. The implications are clear - our spending on transportation for students is a subsidy that raises some home values and lowers others. It is a distortion of the market. The irony of this distortion is that the money spent actually creates more demand for more spending, a self-fulfilling downward spiral.

Some of the other people in this thread, like our friend Aaron Brown, have properly noted that the transition costs to a world configured differently would be great. We agree. It took us sixty years of subsidies to deconstruct the old model, one that was resilient and market-based. It will take at least half that amount of time to start reconnecting some of these threads. Ultimately, though, we can't afford to take money from the classroom -- from teachers and class sizes -- and put it into subsidizing transportation, and through that our living pattern. We need that money to educate kids.

Some may say we just simply need more money. Okay, but I don't see that argument winning the day as we are heading into a period of huge economic transition. The more likely reality is that we are going to be forced to do much more with much less. Subsidizing transportation is simply making our current financial shortfall worse. Ending that subsidy - and transitioning to something else - can be done in a way that is compassionate, sensitive to current realities, but ultimately gets us to where we need to be, which is a more financially resilient system.

I don't work in schools, but I am on a school board and grew up in a family of farmer/educators. Undoubtedly, these are complex issues in complex times. I'm very grateful for the thoughtful contributions you all have made to the discussion.

Keep working to build strong towns.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn
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