Parents and students are “continuing to struggle with our late start time … and finding people to watch their children and make sure they get on the bus,” says Eliza Goodwin, principal of the Southside Family Charter School. A cost-cutting move by the Minneapolis Public Schools has forced Southside to delay their school starting time to 10:15 a.m.
By law, public school districts in Minnesota are obliged to provide student transportation to and from school to any charter school that requests it. Steve Liss, Chief of Policy and Operations for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), said that before September 2007 Minneapolis had tried to bring charter students to their schools by a reasonable time in the morning, and transported them at the same time as their own students.
Last July, a TC Daily Planet article about declining enrollment in Minneapolis Public Schools sparked an angry response from Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the Humphrey Institute. He objected to a paragraph that said charter school parents consider busing an important factor in their choice of schools and to a statement that the law requires door-to-door busing for charter schools. The paragraph was a quotation, but it was wrong — the law does not require door-to-door busing. The law requires that public school districts provide busing for charter schools. For reasons described below, that results in something close to door-to-door busing for charter schools. Prompted by the heated response to the question of busing, which had not been the focus of the article, we decided to investigate further. This article summarizes what we found.
Busing is expensive, and MPS deliberately moved to cut costs by making it unattractive or impossible for charter schools to use MPS busing.
“We just couldn’t continue under the old system,” Liss said. For the start of the 2007-2008 school year, MPS decided to prioritize their students when planning bus routes by creating a tiered scheduling system. Most charters, Liss said, were offered a “Tier 5” 10:05 a.m. drop-off time, which left them to start at 10:15 a.m. Needless to say, most charters did not take the option.
Charter schools “were not happy about the late start,” Liss said. The district’s plan to lighten their budget load worked – many charters no longer request the district to transport their students. Liss said the district is transporting around 440 charter students this school year.
Steve Dess is a former director of the Association of Charter Schools, who now works with the Learning for Leadership charter school and nine other charter schools on busing choices and decisions. He sees both financial and competitive reasons behind the 2007 MPS bus schedule decision:
“It’s a financial decision, and Minneapolis is financially tight, so it makes sense for their reasons to make the competition have to deal with something we know parents don’t appreciate. It is their right to do this the best they can, without having requirements imposed on them by the charter school. And it’s costing them more money than the state is reimbursing them for.”
The state reimburses school districts about $250 per student for transporting charter students, but, according to Steve Liss, that is not enough. Liss said it costs the district between $1,200 and $1,250 per student, too high for a district facing mounting budget deficits and declining enrolment, which also drew state aid away.
Busing is crucial for parents and students. In a survey commissioned by MPS in 2006, 43% of the charter school parents surveyed named busing as one of the important factors in school choice.
Charter schools usually have “corner” bus stops, which means that a student is picked up at the corner of the block where the student lives. Some charter school transportation coordinators explained that their students live in neighborhoods where parents have fears for their safety, and that’s why they have corner pick-up. Some pick up kindergarten or special needs students at their homes.
Steve Dess said the Learning for Leadership charter school has corner stops for most students, and door-to-door pick-up for kindergarten and some special needs students.
“The expectations for having your kids picked up and go to school, they have changed remarkably over the last ten years,” said Dess. “particularly in the city. It’s a safety issue for some communities.”
Even when MPS provides the busing, charter school students often have corner pick-up. That may be because there are fewer charter school students in any given neighborhood. It makes sense to have 10 MPS students who live in a neighborhood walk to a centrally located bus stop. It makes no sense to have a single charter school student in a neighborhood walk three blocks to a bus stop, rather than having the bus come to the student.
For Eliza Goodwin and the families of Southside Family Charter School, cost savings from MPS busing outweigh the difficulties of coping with a 10:15 start time. When the busing plan was announced, Goodwin said, parents and school staff together decided that the $50,000 to $70,000 it would have cost them to go it alone was not worth it.
“The parents said, ‘we could hire one or two more teachers with that money,’” she said.
James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.