'Can I get a ride?' Removing an obstacle for families using school choice

'Can I get a ride?' Removing an obstacle for families using school choice
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Some critics of school choice say that because not all families can take advantage of it to the same degree, it ought to be cut back. They are correct about this: Some families can’t make the most out of their available school choice options because they have trouble transporting their children to school. The solution to that inequity is not to dismantle those options, but to help needy families find their own transportation solutions. Choice should be more universal, not just the domain of those who can afford it.

For many families of means, getting their child into a better school is a matter of paying private school tuition or relocating to a new community. Those methods, however, limit school choice based on ZIP codes and bank accounts. While most states have made school choice more broadly accessible by creating more tuition-free educational options, some foes of choice want to dial back opportunity.

Progressive journalist Jennifer Berkshire has openly acknowledged she is “a little bit obsessed” with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosDemocratic lawmaker tears into DeVos: You're 'out to destroy public education' Democrats lash out at DeVos over proposed changes to loan forgiveness plan The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday MORE, who favors expanding choice, and her home state of Michigan. Earlier this year, Berkshire gave a disparaging analysis of Michigan’s 20-year-old policy of inter-district choice. Among the chief complaints, she offered this: “Because there’s no transportation provided and attending school in another district often requires some significant travel, schools of choice are only an option for kids who have a way to get there.” 

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Berkshire’s observation holds some weight. The vast majority of districts accepting nonresident students offer no assistance beyond maybe picking up students at one of their established bus stops. Further, only one-third of Michigan public charter schools provide transportation to the school door. As a result, most Michigan families who exercise choice must drive, carpool or find another way to convey their child. In short, choice programs have not given everyone the same level of opportunity — especially to those in high-need urban areas. 

Yet critics err in concluding that politicians should close the doors on families seeking better schools. A much better answer is to level the playing field by offering transportation scholarships to the neediest families. A limited-use digital debit account, for example, would expand the range of available option for them. Several parents could pool funds together to help their chosen school provide targeted transportation services. A scholarship also could cover fares for public transit, or even the costs of a state-approved, child-friendly ridesharing program. 

In recent years, a few young and growing companies have given parents in certain areas digital tools they can use to hire qualified drivers who can get their children to school or other places they need to be. These companies have started up by catering largely to more affluent communities, but the concept could be expanded to help more economically challenged students as well.

One study found that Baltimore students who must travel through dangerous neighborhoods were more likely to miss school, which puts them further behind their wealthier peers. And riding the district bus may expose some kids to extreme bullying. 

In the case of Detroit’s Myesha Williams, transportation challenges meant figuring out how to drive nearly 100 miles each day to deliver eight kids to schools in different parts of the city, because other reliable options were lacking. The Detroit school district’s uniquely poor track record of academic achievement has prompted most students to find somewhere else to get an education. Three out of 10 parents in the city said transportation barriers limit their ability to choose a safer or higher-performing school, according to a 2014 Center on Reinventing Public Education survey

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The challenge is not isolated to the Motor City. Earlier research of parents in Denver and Washington, D.C., found that parents who had trouble with transportation also had other frustrating schooling experiences. The availability of transportation scholarships could help some parents consider suitable schooling options that previously seemed too far away.

Building systems to safely and reliably transport large groups of students is a logistical challenge. As families look in different directions for quality educational options to meet unique needs, the challenge becomes greater. Rather than giving up on the benefits of choice, policymakers also can give parents the power to get their children to and from school. 

States should look to expand low-income families’ mobility, giving them a better shot at reaching a school that brightens hopes for their children’s success. There’s no better place to start the engine for this movement than the home state of the Motor City.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow