Washington state is considering eliminating all funding for school busing to address a $2 billion shortfall in the state budget. Cutting school busing for all students would give the state an additional $220 million. Getting rid of transportation for students would mean that it will be up to parents to figure out how to get their kids to school not to mention lots more traffic at drop-off and pick-up time.
But it also raises the question of what constitutes a “basic education.” While some note that cutting transportation is preferable to other cuts in the classroom, no more school buses means that some students will have no means of getting to school, if parents work or if students live beyond walking distance. While there are some benefits to students — such as the exercise from walking — there are also safety concerns, depending on where students live and how long their walk is.
Washington is not the only state that has put school buses on the line in seeking to address budget issues; California and Colorado have also previously cut funds for transportation. But if Washington Governor Chris Gregoire’s idea is approved by state lawmakers, Washington would be the first state to completely eliminate transportation for children in public school in the US. Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, says that about 50 percent of US school children –not including children in special education whose transportation is mandated under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — take school buses to school:
States pay between 30 and 100 percent of the cost of student transportation in most places, including 67 percent in Washington state. The dollars are not evenly distributed across Washington, however, with some districts depending 100 percent on the state for transportation dollars and others filling in with local levy dollars.
Riley says the idea of cutting money for buses is problematic for several reasons—from student safety to more traffic and air pollution from parents driving their kids to the impact it may have on attendance.
Furthermore, under Washington’s state Constitution, the state is required to pay the costs of basic education, as the state legislature defines it. Student transportation is actually defined as part of such a basic education, says Washington’s state schools chief, Randy Dorn. But the state’s Office of Financial Management contends that what a basic education means is up for debate:
Dorn said he’s hoping for an assist from the Washington Supreme Court, which is deliberating over a school spending lawsuit. School districts, education and community groups and parents are suing the state to demand it fulfill its constitutional duty to pay for basic education. A lower court judge ruled in favor of the school districts. When the state Supreme Court considered a similar case in the 1970s, it ordered the Legislature to take the Constitution more seriously.
Seattle Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, stands to lose the most from the governor’s school bus idea. The state currently pays only 50 percent of the cost to transport Seattle kids, but that adds up to about $15.7 million a year, said Tom Bishop, transportation manager for the district.
School administrators have also been trying to address the issue of transportation costs by ensuring that students are assigned to neighborhood schools.
Gregoire has also proposed increasing class sizes, reducing the school year by a week and eliminating full-day kindergarten. Some sorts of cuts to school as Washington students have known are on the way. But what if students can’t even get to school in the first place?
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