We don’t need no transportation

Charles Marohn, New Urban Network

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.

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 where they clear cut the 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 caused by or was 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 percent. 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 busing. That would be a 20 percent 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 — it has to happen anyway —  and so the cheapest way to do it is to make it large-scale. 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.

Related reading:

  • Destroying Neighborhoods: Back to School Edition (September 14, 2009)
  • Subsidizing Inefficiency: Back to School Edition (September 16, 2009)
  • No Car Left Behind (September 20, 2010)
  • The Wrong Way: Minnesota School Transportation Disparities by John Fitzgerald of MN2020

Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is president of Strong Towns, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for changes in development patterns and a complete understanding of the full costs of methods of growth. Strong Towns is seeking tax-deductable, $25 donations from 100 readers to create a video version of its Curbside Chat presentation.