Published Online: January 4, 2013

Commentary

In the Dark About Early Morning School Buses

Lots of apps, such as Transit Stop, iNextBus, and Embark DC, now let you track public-transit schedules. But they are restricted to public transit used by adults. Why can’t a similar app exist for public school buses, likely the most widely used public-transit system in the United States? And, more specifically, why can’t prospective homeowners or renters easily learn the school bus times associated with different properties?

For many well-documented reasons concerning the health, education, and safety of their children (a compendium of such resources may be found at StartSchoolLater.net), many parents don’t want to live in a neighborhood where their children would have to board predawn buses for most of the school year. For example, Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md.,—both Washington suburbs—have large parent-dominated movements seeking later bus and high school start times. Most Fairfax public high school students start their day at 7:20 a.m.; Montgomery’s, at 7:25 a.m. Many buses start their routes an hour before schools start, and Fairfax has one bus that starts as early as 5:45 a.m. Seeking later start times, thousands of Fairfax County and Montgomery County residents have recently signed petitions pressing for change.

School districts assert that they cannot publicly release school bus-route data because it would be used by child predators. But I haven’t been able to find a single piece of evidence to back up this claim. The defense also appears remarkably arbitrary: It would be easy for a motivated stranger to learn when buses arrive for kids, and countless after-school activities, including outdoor sports, already widely publicize their schedules.

A better explanation for the lack of public bus-route data is that school districts recognize that predawn bus routes reflect child-unfriendly budget priorities.

Consider this: I took a list of the nation’s “top 20 prep schools,” as selected by Forbes magazine in 2010, and looked up when their days began—not one started regular classroom instruction before 8 a.m. At the same time, many poor public school districts also can somehow afford later start times.

"Many parents don’t want to live in a neighborhood where their children would have to board predawn buses for most of the school year."

Reflecting the political embarrassment associated with early bus routes, not only are the final bus routes publicized as little as possible, but the whole process of establishing such routes is often shrouded in secrecy.

The primary driver of ever-earlier bus routes (and corresponding early school start times) is transportation-cost reduction. Using a single bus for as many routes and pickups as possible saves money. Consider a district that finds itself with a budget shortfall.

Since the transportation budget is discretionary and lacks a well-organized constituency to protect it, it’s a prime target for raiding, which leads to earlier bus times. Meanwhile, to minimize opposition, districts give parents minimal public notice of the proposed changes.

Those harmed the most are typically the poorest, most educationally at risk students. Others, usually the most privileged, can compensate thanks to parents who either buy cars for their kids or drive their children to school.

As part of the Obama administration’s push for data-driven public school accountability, public school systems should be required to disclose their bus-route data in a well-structured, standardized format on the Internet, just as public-transit systems already do.

Similarly, the process for establishing guidelines for earliest school bus times should be subject to the same type of public notice and comment already required for public school calendars.

In choosing a home, parents shouldn’t be blind-sided about an issue such as public school bus routes that could prove vital to the safety, health, education, and happiness of their children. Taxpayers deserve accessible information about public bus routes for children as well as adults.

Vol. 32, Issue 15

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