Busing Costs for Nonpublic Pupils Under Scrutiny
The Milwaukee school board has decided to seek a change in state law to allow the district to save money by eliminating some bus services for nonpublic-school students, even though board members are not optimistic about the proposal's chances.
"I know the legislature probably won't seriously consider it," Joyce P. Mallory, chairman of the board's budget committee, said of the Nov. 30 proposal.
In a state where support for private schools is strong, and where the governor, Tommy Thompson, has said he favors the idea of tuition vouchers, the plan to stop busing some 2,500 Milwaukee private-school students may get no further than the school board's 37-item 1989 legislative wish list.
But the Milwaukee board is not alone. In looking for ways to contain costs, a number of school districts nationwide are scrutinizing all transportation services--an expensive budget item, school business officers and transportation supervisors say.
As part of that scrutiny, the provision of bus services for private-school students is coming under fire from some public-school parents and teachers as well as cost-conscious school boards. But they run up against equally adamant private-school advocates.
"It's a political hot potato," said Charles L. Wineland, chairman of the pupil-transportation committee of the Association of School Business Officials International and transportation supervisor for the Charles County, Md., school district.
Said George E. Donn, past president of the National Association of Pupil Transportation and transportation director of the Washington County, Md., public schools, "Once anybody gets anything, it's hard to take it away, whether it's transportation or school lunches."
Provided By Half of States
At least 26 states provide free transportation for some private-school students, according to data compiled in 1986 by Patricia M. Lines, a policy analyst at the U.S. Education Department. (See Education Week, April 22, 1987.)
At least two states, Illinois and Washington, have provisions allowing districts to provide transportation to private-school students at cost if the students travel on regularly scheduled bus routes, according to Ms. Lines's research.
And in Maryland, a 45-year-old state law requires some districts, but not others, to provide transportation to private-school students.
This year, several districts have tried to cut private-school transportation, with limited success
The Philadelphia school system, as part of a broad cost-cutting plan announced this past summer, proposed saving $4 million by eliminating bus service for more than 6,000 nonpublic-school students. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1988.)
While the city's school officials expect to have a $31.7-million surplus during the 1988 fiscal year, they also foresee a $274-million deficit by 1993 as a result of a four-year, $471-million contract reached with teachers last spring.
Private-school parents, mostly from the Catholic schools, protested the plan and filed suit against the district, seeking the continuation of the services.
Pennsylvania law mandates that transportation services be provided on an equal basis to public and private-school students. The district's plan would limit busing of both private and public-school students to the state minimum.
In 1987-88, the cost to transport private-school students was $12.5 million, a spokesman for the Philadelphia district said. The state reimbursed the district for $5 million, leaving it to pay the remaining $7.5 million. This year, after state reimbursement, the district anticipates paying $8.2 million for the private-school busing.
The district and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia issued a joint statement in the summer agreeing to seek more state funding for the program. The district postponed the transportation cutback until next June, and law4yers for both sides agreed to expedite the lawsuit so that a judgement could be reached in that time.
"It's important that the litigation proceed in order to clarify the district's long-term responsibility for nonpublic-school transportation," said William C. Thompson, a district spokesman.
"For the state to mandate that transportation services be provided and then to reimburse only 40 percent of the cost, requires the district to use education dollars," Mr. Thompson said. "We are facing a deficit and the issue is saving money."
In New Orleans, the school district, financially strapped by an ailing economy, this year proposed saving $XX million by cutting transportation for XXXXX private-school students, mostly from Roman Catholic schools.
After protests by Catholic-school parents, the district reached an agreement with the New Orleans Archdiocese to continue the services.
Howard County, Md.
In Howard County, Md., a proposed "hold-the-line" school budget for fiscal 1989 prompted the county p.t.a. Council to propose saving nearly a quarter of a million dollars by cutting bus service to about 600 private-school students. The council got a state legislator to introduce legislation changing the 1943 law requiring the district to provide the service.
To the p.t.a., the measure was more a matter of principle than a cost-saving move. "The National pta stand is 'public funds for public schools,"' said Janis S. Chastant, the p.t.a. president.
"We feel that you have a choice, and some people have made a choice to send their children to a private school," Ms. Chastant said. "We all pay for police protection, but if you choose to install a burglar alarm in your home, you pay extra for that."
At a public hearing on the issue last spring, "private-school representatives came out en masse" to argue their case, Ms. Chastant said. The state delegate dropped the legislation. The p.t.a. will decide at its next meeting on Jan. 3 whether to pursue the issue.
Pittsburgh, Charles County, Md.
In Pittsburgh, district officials say there are no plans to eliminate a $5-million program to bus 8,200 children to nonpublic schools. But they cited the program as one reason that Pittsburgh ranked number one on a list of the per-pupil expenditures of the nation's 50 largest school districts. The list, compiled by City & State magazine, showed the district spending $6,957 per student last year.
"If I had to cut my budget, I probably wouldn't try to cut private-school transportation," said Charles County's Mr. Wineland.
The rural county will spend about $560,000 this year, about 8 percent of its $7-million transportation budget, to bus 2,500 children to five private schools, he said. The children ride regular school buses to public high schools and then are taken on smaller shuttle buses to their private schools.
Mr. Wineland argued that if the service were eliminated, many private-school students would enroll in the public schools. "We possibly would face increasing expenses to educate those students, and we'd be talking about a greater expense in the long run," he said.
Racial Balance an Issue
In Wisconsin, the issue is racial as well as financial.
"I don't think we should be paying transportation costs for young people going to private or parochial schools, especially to those schools seen as being racially isolated," said Ms. Mallory.
State law requires districts to provide transportation for students to private schools within the district and up to five miles from its boundaries. The law was passed more than 10 years ago, after a statewide referendum permitted the legislature to authorize or require districts to bus private-school students.
Last year, the Milwaukee district spent $1.5 million of its $38.2-million transportation budget to bus 2,892 students to 43 private schools in the city and 13 outside the city, according to Doug Haselow, its director of government relations.
Under the school board's proposed change in state law, which board members unanimously backed, the district would provide transportation only to those private schools that could show that they enhanced racial balance in the district--by enrolling minority students from the city--or which themselves were racially balanced.
The impetus for the proposal is the district's court-ordered desegregation, Mr. Haselow said.
"We are bound by the court to spend millions to desegregate our schools, and it doesn't make sense to spend a million more to make our job harder," he said. The change would disproportionately affect white nonpublic students, he acknowledged.
The court's definition of a racially balanced elementary school is a school with 25 percent to 65 percent black enrollment. Mr. Haselow said that it was not clear how many private schools would fit under the court's guidelines, but he estimated that the proposed change would eliminate bus service to about 2,500 students, saving about $1 million.
'We Don't Have the Money'
Father Leslie A. Darnieder, assistant superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said he had not seen the proposal but noted that the district provides transportation for six Catholic schools in the city. He estimated that the proposal, as described to him by a reporter, would force the archdiocese to bus students across the city.
"We don't have the money to take on another burden of transporting children back and forth," Father Darnieder said. "The parents would have to provide transportation."
This year, enrollment in the schools in the archiocese, which covers 10 counties and the city of Milwaukee, is about 23 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Asian, he said.
Gene W. Ladendorf, superintendent of schools for the Southern Wisconsin District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said the public-school district buses 445 students to seven Lutheran schools.
The Milwaukee district, he said, "is making the assumption that we encourage schools to be prejudiced or not racially balanced, and that's not the case. The district has no right to make that assumption."
Mr. Ladendorf said the Lutheran schools on the city's South Side are predominantly black. "There's no way we could achieve balance unless we bused in students from across town," he said. Since each congregation is responsible for its own school, meeting the guidelines would require the schools to be centrally administered.
With Governor Thompson saying that he may propose a parental-choice plan that involves private schools in Milwaukee, Ms. Mallory said, there is little chance the Milwaukee board's proposal will succeed.
"If such a voucher plan is proposed, the legislature probably would not want to undo the mechanism--transportation--that is the key to getting those students to private schools," she said.
The Milwaukee board has said it opposes any private-school choice plan. The state legislature is scheduled to convene in late January.