Pa. Fails To Cover Cost of Busing Private Students, Study Finds

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Pennsylvania requires school districts to bus private school students but falls short in helping pay the $132 million in yearly costs, a study contends.

State funding has increased in recent years to cover 44 percent of private school transportation costs, according to the study of 204 districts by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. But it found that local districts still pay $73 million each year to bus an estimated 206,000 of the state's 335,000 private school students, often to neighboring states.

Since its release this month, the 18-page report has put reform-minded lawmakers on a collision course with private school advocates, who do not want bus services for their students reduced.

A 1972 law requires Pennsylvania's 501 public school districts to bus private school students to schools up to 10 miles outside district boundaries. But lawmakers were surprised by how much the law costs districts--and that nearly 2,000 students are bused out of state.

"This is a mandate imposed by the state that has nothing to do with operating a public school system," said state Rep. Ronald R. Cowell, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly education committee.

Thirteen states require public school districts to transport private school students, but local critics say Pennsylvania is too kind.

"Transporting students 10 miles beyond a district boundary is pretty generous," said Thomas Gentzel, the PSBA's assistant executive director. "Running extra buses and extending routes is increasing per-pupil costs."

School officials got a chance to voice their concerns at a March 6 hearing before the eight-member Assembly education panel.

A board member from the Unionville-Chester Ford schools near Philadelphia said his 3,416-student district buses 440 students to private schools, 223 of whom go to 13 schools in Delaware.

"I personally have a problem with taking money from one state and shifting it to another," said Herb Brown, the vice president of the Unionville-Chester Ford school board. "They don't do it for us."

Mr. Cowell said he and other committee members were unaware that so many students were being bused across state lines. But out-of-state bus rides are just one part of the costly transportation burden, school officials added.

For example, Mr. Brown said, when the private Upland Country Day School in Kennett Square releases its students early each Friday, public school buses are there to take 53 students home.

"We have to customize transportation around release times," he said.

The state pays about $668,000 of his district's yearly $1.8 million transportation bill. Busing private school students costs the district about $447,000 annually.

Legislators proved sympathetic to the concerns. They used an education bill on the Assembly floor as a vehicle for trying to amend the transportation requirements.

Relief and Opposition

Mr. Cowell is not sure which of his three amendments he will back most strongly when the bill comes up again next month.

His amendments would:

  • Eliminate cross-state busing of private school students;
  • Raise state aid to 80 percent of what it costs to transport private school students; and
  • Give districts an additional $100 for every private school pupil they transport.

Another amendment, filed by Rep. Robert Flick, a Republican, would make out-of-state transportation of private school students a local school board option.

The changes are opposed by some private school groups, which are just beginning to organize their response to the PSBA report.

A statement issued by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public-affairs arm of the state's Roman Catholic bishops, argued that parents of private school students deserve the transportation because they pay local and state taxes just as public school parents do.

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