California Bus Aid Still Imperiled, Despite Reprieve
Despite reprieve, districts fear cuts loom; warn of effect on choice, desegregation
California legislators swiftly passed a budget bill last week aimed at sheltering school busing dollars from a midyear budget cut many districts and advocates said particularly hurt rural school systems, along with urban districts with desegregation plans.
While the measure, which Gov. Jerry Brown was expected to sign into law, would restore $248 million in home-to-school transportation for the remainder of the school year, it also means districts would have to weather bigger cuts to K-12 general funding. And given that next year's budget proposals threaten to wipe out the entire $500 million-plus in busing funds, districts statewide are left wondering how they'll afford to keep the buses running for their students long-term.
"We don't think the transportation cut is good policy from the state, and believe there are fairer and more advisable policy options to address the budget," said Myong Leigh, the deputy superintendent for policy and operations for the San Francisco Unified School District. "As we can see in our own district, it's going to have an undermining effect and disproportionate impact on students who are the most vulnerable, like other cuts from the state have had."
As California grapples with a $9.2 billion deficit, some districts and advocates are looking to see if the growing severity of cuts to education—including those to transportation—will lead state policymakers to overhaul a school finance system they feel is inequitable for poor and minority students.
Home-to-school busing is a state categorical fund that supports a district's transportation services for special-needs students, which are mandated by federal law, and for general education students, at the discretion of a district. In rural areas, the bulk of funding typically is used to bus students the long distances to and from school. In other districts, the dollars have often helped provide busing for students to attend non-neighborhood schools, which sometimes have been part of desegregation efforts. Districts have received widely varying amounts of transportation funding, based on prior years' enrollments and busing costs.
Because of the funding formula, the impact of any transportation-aid cut will differ significantly from district to district. With the midyear cut, for instance, one district in Central California's Fresno County, Parlier Unified, was losing around $30 per student; another, Sierra Unified, in the same county, almost $350. Covering the losses with their own dollars means some districts will take a much greater hit than others.
The cuts in January were part of California's nearly $1 billion in midyear budget reductions, triggered when state revenues came up $2.2 billion short of expectations. The state's fiscal year 2012 budget is $86.5 billion, $34.2 billion of it for K-12 spending.
According to H.D. Palmer, the deputy director of external affairs at the California Department of Finance, the state pulled the plug on school transportation funding because it was an area "where some districts had some ability to charge fees, change routes, et cetera," and where districts hadn't yet been allowed flexibility in using their funds.
The new legislation would restore the categorical funds for transportation, but take the cut from the general funding districts receive, meaning all districts would lose the same amount per student, around $45. Some districts will end up losing more per student than they would with the busing cut, while others are losing far less.
Though legislation to restore the busing money drew strong public and legislative support when the cut went into affect midyear, the state has planned to cut all dollars for the fund next year. And, if voters reject tax increases on the November ballot, the governor has warned, districts could stand to lose another nearly $5 billion in state funding for K-12 overall.
A number of large, urban districts would also be affected significantly by a loss of busing funds in the future, given their reliance on transportation to carry out school choice and desegregation plans. After this year's midyear cut to busing became imminent, the 664,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District attempted to get a judicial restraining order to stop its $38 million reduction and is still contemplating legal action pending future state budget decisions.
According to Donald Wilkes, the interim director of transportation for the LAUSD, a cut to busing aid will put the district in a precarious position to implement a desegregation plan mandated by a state court more than three decades ago.
As part of the Los Angeles plan, 35,000 students attend 172 district magnet schools. The district buses almost all of those students, in addition to 13,000 special-needs students and those attending higher-performing schools, under federal mandates.
"This cut [will] tear at the very fabric of LAUSD's effort to create equal opportunities for all of our students, while complying with federal, state, and court-ordered transportation mandates," Mr. Wilkes said. "Cuts of this magnitude, like the other cuts we've endured, totaling some $2.3 billion over the last few years, tend to significantly affect disadvantaged students."
In San Francisco, the 56,000-student district has had a desegregation plan that was court mandated until 2005, but is now voluntary. Currently, SFUSD uses a lottery system whereby parents rank a list of district schools and the district places a child in one, taking factors such as poverty level and sibling status into consideration.
While San Francisco was in the process of reducing bus services given the state's budget reductions over the past few years, the cuts in store for the future put it in an uncertain position on how to proceed, Mr. Leigh said. It's likely many parents will have less incentive to list schools outside their neighborhoods unless they can be certain of bus service, he said, so the district may have to amend its diversity plan as a result.
In the San Diego Unified district, a desegregation plan—once court-ordered, but now voluntary—allows the 114,500 students in the district to attend magnet schools and other schools of choice. Today, just over half the district's students attend their neighborhoods schools.
Two years ago, San Diego started charging students to ride the school bus, with the exception of those federally mandated to receive a ride and those on free- and reduced-price lunch plans. But even with around 1,900 students paying the $500 annual fee, the district likely won't be able to afford bus service in the future for students not covered by federal mandates, said Phil Stover, San Diego's deputy superintendent for business.
Instead of pulling more money from the classroom to keep busing the 13,500 children who ride, San Diego plans to speed up implementation of an existing plan to strengthen neighborhood schools and shift away from the school choice model. That plan is due mainly to families' resistance to hourlong bus rides and test results that don't show much difference in student performance between neighborhood and choice schools, Mr. Stover said.
Still, the district was not prepared to move forward this quickly.
"I've been doing this for 30 years, and this is the most challenging five-year period I've ever seen," Mr. Stover said. "We're being required to take our five-year plan down to a two-year plan ... and remake our district as we know it."
Changing the System
The battle over K-12 education finance in California over the past few decades has left districts heavily reliant on state funding for support. According to state estimates, an average of 60 percent of districts' general funds are from the state alone, not including categorical programs such as busing. Because of that dependence, the state cutbacks have left many districts scrambling to stay afloat.
Frustrations with legislative gridlock have prompted advocates for disadvantaged students, along with districts like the LAUSD, to mount legal challenges to the K-12 funding system in recent years, arguing it is inequitable.
John Affeldt, the managing attorney with Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based nonprofit civil rights firm that has brought funding-equity cases against the state, including one now on appeal, said the proposed cut in aid for home-to-school busing illustrates how the state's budget reductions and outdated funding formulas hurt disadvantaged students.
"Before the recession, most districts were not getting adequate funding levels to serve all of their students and, in particular, low-income and [English-language-learner] students were getting the shortest end of the stick," Mr. Affeldt said. "Now with the budget cuts, services are being taken away, and the impacts are further falling the hardest on [these] kids."
Future of State Finance
Separate from the legal challenges, the 2012-13 budget plan from Gov. Brown, a Democrat, proposes to shift the existing school funding system to a weighted per-pupil formula funding. Under the plan, most categorical programs and district general funding would be consolidated and redistributed in single amounts to each district, allocated with disadvantaged students in mind.
While some districts are optimistic that the proposals would create much-needed change, Mr. Affeldt and others are worried the flexibility provided to use the dollars at a district's discretion would mean existing inequities are maintained.
And even if the governor's budget proposal passes, the state would take five years to transition to the new funding system. In the interim, districts faced with cuts to busing aid and other K-12 general funding will have to make some tough budget decisions, including whether to use limited money to maintain plans for school diversity or abandon them.
Civil Rights Concern
Gary Orfield, an education and law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-director of the Civil Rights Project, a research center at UCLA, worries that districts' integration efforts will be quickly dismantled if they can no longer afford the simple means that enable students to attend schools outside their neighborhoods: the school bus.
"Millions of deeply disadvantaged kids are limited by the extreme segregation in their unequal schools. While districts are under tremendous budget pressure at every front, much more effort has gone into protecting teachers, and transportation has been defined as a secondary or unimportant thing," said Mr. Orfield, who has researched school desegregation issues for decades. "But for these students, transportation is a lifeline and a valuable educational investment to give them some access to the kinds of schools others have access to, schools with a real path to college."
Vol. 31, Issue 20, Pages 1,14-15