Who Pays for the Transport Costs of School Choice?


My University of Minnesota colleague Elizabeth Wilson lives on the quintessential neighborhood street in St. Anthony Park (St. Paul). While riding her bike to work she was sucking diesel exhaust from four different school buses running down her street; these four buses were taking kids to four different elementary schools. She thought about the transport and environmental implications of such; she corralled Julian Marshall and me (and others) to do a study. Not surprisingly, we found (and quantified) that school choice had some environmental (and other) implications. Now, what can we do with this information?

In a didactic post that ends by telling people not to be sanctimonious, my co-author and fellow streets.mn contributor, David Levinson, recently shared insights and cutting perspectives about school choice. His arguments prized educational diversity, sometimes at the expense of transport costs or other aspects, and they are hard to disagree with.

Should all schools be interchangeable? How about teachers? All else being equal, most will agree it’s better to serve a child’s individual educations needs with more tailored learning. But when these needs (or desires) increase transport miles, who is responsible for paying for these side effects? When public dollars are at stake, should the school district be picking up this tab?

There’s a lot to this story. (As the Dude in the Big Lebowski put it) school choice is a complicated case (You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s). As the issue is about the education of our offspring, it evokes strong emotions. Pareto optimum solutions to the school choice issue probably don’t exist. But, as there’s more complexity to this issue than most people realize, here’s to starting a multi-post series to drill deeper into dimension of school choice and travel.

Transport logistics dictate a lot about how school districts operate. And, many school districts devote a surprising amount of their budget to supporting the transport dimensions of school choice. Maybe they should; maybe they shouldn’t. But now right many do and Minneapolis Public Schools spend more than your average bear. Nationally, transport costs average about 5% of a school district’s budget[1]; when school choice is catered to, the proportion of costs escalate from there. These obviously are public dollars and they accrue more than most people realize.

Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts are roughly the same size with roughly the same number of students. But, owing to policy differences, school buses used to travel more than twice as many miles per day in Minneapolis than in St. Paul in 2008 (10.6 versus 4.8 million miles per year)[2]. What was the difference? The school districts had different policies regarding pickup distance. Minneapolis provided bus service to children living 0.5 mile or more from school, while St. Paul used to provide service for students living over one mile from school; they’ve since changed that. Minneapolis had more generous commitments to transporting children to non-neighborhood schools. While both were required to offer transportation options for charter schools in the district, back then, Minneapolis did so for a greater number of schools.

Putting aside specifics of the figures, who is responsible for paying for the differences in the transport miles? The school district’s transport budget (therefore the taxpayers)? Or should these costs be  privatized? Minneapolis Public Schools seems to think that school choice is  important and are willing to pay for it. Relatively speaking, a lot of it. By doing so, the district is providing a service that makes budgeting more difficult. Fuel prices are relatively volatile and can disproportionately affect a school district’s budget.

Furthermore, assuming that appropriated school budgets are closed systems, then dollars devoted to  transport are dollars not spent in the classroom. This raises the possibility of diverting ‘supposed’ transport dollars to enhanced (and tailored?) educational delivery to neighborhood schools.

If kids (and parents) are going to bypass their closest school (or two or three closest schools) in favor of a heightened educational experience elsewhere, is there a sound justification for using public tax dollars to pay for the costs these decisions bear to the environment (and society)? The next post will discuss the policy levers in play in school choice and school transport discussions.

[1] Nationally, the average annual transport cost per student is approaching $500, see: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmb.asp

[2] While needing update, 2008 was when we collected data.