The results of the first round of SchoolChoice are in for the 2015-2016 school year. SchoolChoice participation in Southwest Denver, with its two new shared enrollment boundaries, jumped dramatically from 67% last year to 91% this year. Yet, thousands of parents in the places with the worst schools still feel stuck because it is so difficult to physically get to good schools, and many families end up having to choose proximity over quality because the lack of transportation options.
In fact, one of every three families in Denver say they have a hard time finding a way to get their kids to get to school. This percentage mirrors woes of families in cities like Detroit and Cleveland—cities struggling economically far more than Denver, without the thriving urban core our Mile High City boasts.
The large number of families struggling to find transportation for their kids may have something to do with the fact that 64% of Denver parents drive their kids to school, the highest rate (by 9 to 31 percentage points) in eight high-choice cities in a recent CRPE survey. As an example, the 3.5 miles from College View Elementary School to Grant Beacon Middle School (a route not serviced by DPS transportation) is only a 15-minute drive, but is 45 minutes on public transportation. Transportation—or lack thereof—is one of the biggest barriers to realizing actual school choice for Denver kids.
DPS is one of the first districts in the country beginning to match transportation policies to choice policies. In other words, DPS is introducing transportation to all schools available within the Southwest and West middle school shared enrollment zones similar to the Success Express in the Far Northeast and Near Northeast. This cluster busing system, where students are guaranteed transportation to all of the schools within the shared enrollment zone, is a leap forward. Yet, there are some shortcomings. For example, there’s no transportation between zones. Which means the 71 families in the West Middle School Zone whose first choice in SchoolChoice was DSST: College View will have to find their own way to school.
Is there a better way? Are we thinking big enough?
As we increase school options and broaden the definition of enrollment boundaries, we will also need to shake-up the yellow-bus system. It is inefficient, expensive, and does not meet the needs of a changing transportation patterns. Here are some initial ideas:
• Expand DPS student access to RTD services: Strengthen the partnership between DPS and RTD by making all students eligible for a free bus pass. Versions of this are already happening in Portland, OR, where all high school students get a free bus pass; in Washington D.C., where students ride free during school transportation times; and in Oakland, CA, where kids 5-18 can access unlimited public transportation for free.
• Increase capacity of RTD busses on school transportation routes: Identify out-of-boundary transportation needs and provide more direct transportation from regional hubs to out-of-boundary schools. RTD routes can’t exclusively serve students (due to regulations Federal Transit Administration grants), but they can be amended and operate extra service on regular routes to meet the demand of students, an approach that has proved successful in California’s Bay Area and Rochester, NY.
• Gather more information on student transportations needs: Student transportation needs are not homogenous. Elementary and middle schools with longer days don’t fit DPS’ bus schedule, and end up paying transportation costs out of school budgets. For older students, getting from home to school isn’t the only use for DPS sponsored transportation as after school means extracurricular activities and jobs. Improved transportation options for students should be more efficient, work for all schools and students, and open doors that low-income students can’t access using the traditional yellow-bus system.
• Rethink the bus: Companies are beginning to respond to increased student transportation demands. But with a $22/ride price tag of Mercedes’ newly launched Palo Alto service BoostbyBenz for an example, these solutions leave most families in the dust. But it raises an important question—are there other transportation solutions beyond a bus system?
As Denver continues on its path as a national leader in providing choice to families, an eye for equity within the system is vital. The data shows that the transportation barrier disproportionately impacts Latino and Black families who travel farther than white families to get to school. Lack of transportation can be a barrier to students getting to after-school jobs, extracurricular activities, community centers, or libraries. In response, we need collaborative solutions, we need to challenge the status quo, and we need to get all our students to the school of their choice.