Will Arizona student transportation policy start making sense?

Matthew Ladner

In 2008, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared the American public education system to be “an 8-track player in an iPod world.”

While iPods largely were discarded once they became obsolete, antiquated school practices, not so much. My home state of Arizona has done a great deal to modernize K-12 education relative to most states, but even here, aspects of our system are equivalent to Gen X-ers like me using radio/cassette player combos to tape Talking Heads songs from the radio.

Okay, so you can stop laughing now … it works, with only an annoying level of static. Meanwhile, student transportation remains an absurdly outdated area of K-12 policy badly in need of an update.

But change doesn’t come easily.

The Arizona of the early 1990s did not cover itself in K-12 glory. High-performing schools were in limited supply and rationed through the mortgage market. Arizona’s K-12 student body was much smaller and majority Anglo, but when the Nation’s Report Card debuted state level data in 1990, the results were not flattering.

Today, Arizona’s student body is much larger, is majority minority, and is much higher performing, which can be traced back to 1994, when Arizona lawmakers approved legislation that created a diverse system of charter schools, required districts to have an open enrollment policy, and forbade charging tuition to out-of-district students. Twenty percent of Arizona public school students now attend charter schools, which is the highest percentage in the country.

Moreover, students attending out-of-boundary district schools outnumber charter school students nearly two to one in the Phoenix area. This seems to be working out well, as Arizona students have made leading gains on national achievement exams. In addition, with a modernization effort under way to make the open enrollment system easier and simpler to navigate, more families stand at the ready to take advantage of a wider set of public school options.

Arizona’s system of student transport, however, remains stuck in 1993. All Arizona families pay transportation taxes, but districts still largely run those routes solely within the district attendance boundaries. Yes – the district boundaries that most Phoenix area students now cross to get to their school.

My two sons began their schooling in an out-of-boundary district school. We were entirely responsible for getting them to and from school. They were not eligible to use the bus system to take them to their school, even though the route (but not the school) was within walking distance from our house. Why? Because reasons, and the best kinds of reasons, of course, involve no available explanation or reasonable basis.

That ringing sound you hear might be your spidey-sense detecting an equity issue: Everyone pays transportation taxes, but only a minority of students attending their assigned neighborhood school can effectively use the system. In fact, in Arizona’s current system, the minority of kids who do have access to buses (those attending their zoned school) also are likely to have the most proximity to their school.

Open enrollment is a great thing, but it may sing with an upper-class accent given the antiquated transportation system that gives the least to the kids who need the most help with transport.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced his Driving Equity program this legislative session to pilot a menu of innovative transportation solutions for districts, charter schools, and cities and towns as well as to provide transportation assistance to low-income public-school students and families to make choice a reality for every public school family.

In public testimony on a bill modeled after a similar in-lieu-of-transportation grant program used by district schools and states throughout the northeast, Phoenix parent Alysia Garcia noted that as an open enrollment transfer family for the last 10 years, her family has borne the expense for making more than 5,600 trips totaling more than 62,000 miles of travel to and from her home in South Phoenix to access a great school for her daughters.

You can watch her testimony beginning at approximately the one hour thirty-nine-minute mark here.

“What is the point of having a great open enrollment policy if families aren’t able to utilize it?” Garcia asks. “I’m fortunate to have a vehicle to transport my kids. What about the kids that who don’t have vehicles?”

What about those kids, indeed?

In my book, we should view them as human beings with enormous potential and an improved chance to flourish if they can access a good-fit school. Arizona lawmakers demonstrated this level of faith in Arizona families in 1994 by making open enrollment free to every child and establishing public charter schools, and their confidence has not been misplaced.

Policies often grow antiquated because organized interests continue to see such policies benefiting them long after the policies stop making sense. Lawmakers can either move toward modernization this session or consign us to the same as it ever was, which in this case means being neglectful of the disadvantaged.

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