From open enrollment to charter schools to vouchers for private schools, Arizona’s school-choice movement has focused on expanding opportunities for classroom learning.
Now lawmakers are considering a measure that would add more choice in how kids get to that classroom.
A bill awaiting debate at the state House of Representatives would provide taxpayer-funded grants to parents to cover the cost of transporting their children to public schools. As written, anything goes, from reimbursing household gas expenses to ride-share fees, although one proponent said she’s doubtful anyone would use limousine services.
Senate Bill 1280 also would provide $10 million for grants to school districts and local governments to explore ways to modernize school transportation.
“Outside of the 80-passenger yellow school bus, what’s out there?” asked Matt Simon, vice president of government affairs for Great Leaders, Strong Schools, a school-choice advocacy group which is supporting the bill.
The legislation could provide an answer, Simon said, as the grants would fund pilot programs testing options such as vanpools or partnering with a ride-share company.
Critics of the bill say there already are options and argue parts of the bill would duplicate what district schools are doing, such as providing transportation to children who cross district boundaries. The grants are likely to benefit charter schools the most, since unlike district schools, charters don’t provide transportation to their students.
The $10 million would be better used for overall school funding, they say, rather than paying for a program they contend could lead to further privatization of the public schools.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale and a teacher for Great Hearts Academies, a charter school network, introduced the legislation to fix what he called Arizona’s “broken school transportation system.” Transportation costs strain many school budgets and alternative programs might cut those costs, his bill suggests.
Gov. Doug Ducey promoted the concept of transportation to expand school choice in his State of the State address earlier this year.
The bill has three main components to route around the traditional school bus:
- Grants to parents from school districts, to cover the costs of transporting their children to school within their district. Boyer originally had proposed monthly grants of up to $80; the current version does not specify an amount.
- Grants to parents from the state Department of Education to pay transportation costs to a public school that is not their neighborhood school, as long as it’s within 20 miles and there isn’t an existing school-transportation system. Parents would have to meet yet-to-be-established financial guidelines and would have to choose between this option and the district-funded grants to ensure no double dipping. This grant program would run for 10 years and most likely would benefit families who choose charter schools, since charters don’t provide transportation services.
- The $10 million innovation grant program, open to school districts, cities and towns interested in trying out transportation alternatives. It would be administered by the state Department of Administration under the guidance of a 15-member advisory committee and would be a one-year pilot program, ending in December 2022.
The bill aims to disrupt a transportation system that hasn’t changed in 80 years, Emily Anne Gullickson, founder and president of Great Leaders, Strong Schools, told lawmakers in a hearing last month.
Most students attend a public school, she said, whether it be a district or a charter school. But often, it’s a school outside their neighborhood school, making transportation an issue.
“No family should have to turn down the opportunity to attend the public school that best supports their child and their learning due to limitations in transportation and travel times,” Gullickson said.
She portrayed the bill as a chance to experiment with new ways to get kids to school. When one lawmaker conjured up the image of children piling out of a limo at the school gate, Gullickson discounted that likelihood. But, she said, options such as ride-sharing or public transit could be supported through the proposed grants.
Although ride-share companies Uber and Lyft don’t transport children traveling alone, at least three other firms started providing child transportation in Arizona two years ago. A California-based company called Hop Skip Drive already has contracts with several Arizona school districts and is monitoring the bill’s progress in the Arizona Legislature.
Critics say some of the strategies suggested in the bill already exist, and some elements could have unintended consequences.
Grants could encourage more parents to drive, even when the school bus might pass near their homes, said Chuck Essigs, government-relations director for the Arizona Association of School Business Officers.
That could increase crowding at school drop-off lots at schools and risk student safety, he said. And it will make school buses less efficient if more kids ditch the bus for parent cars.
Districts already pay to transport children into their schools from other districts, according to the Arizona School Boards Association. This applies to children who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and who live 20 miles or less from the school of their choice.
Essigs said this provision could provide a disproportionate benefit to charter schools. Charters get $275 per child in state funding for transportation, although they are free to spend it in other areas, which most do.
If charters want to attract students to their schools by helping with transportation costs, the help is already there, he said.
The bill follows in the tracks of programs launched elsewhere.
Proponents such as state Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, point to New Jersey as an innovative example. New Jersey requires school districts to provide transportation for all students who live more than two miles from their school. This can be a bus or other mode of transportation, or it can be a $1,000 annual stipend paid to parents to figure out their own transportation.
The requirement extends to all schools, including private schools. That has stoked concerns that Arizona’s bill is a first step in a process that ultimately will lead to more privatization.
“People are really starting to see that more and more, the answer is to privatize,” said Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, which advocates for strong public schools.
State Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Phoenix, said proponents are using the usual sales job to promote changes that erode the public-school structure: pitching a program as intended for lower-income kids, only to see it expanded to other income brackets over time.
It would be better, Epstein said, if the focus was on the wider school system, not just subcategories of parents and kids.
The bill passed the House Ways and Means Committee on a party-line vote, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.
It now awaits a vote of the full 60-member House.