School & District Management Opinion

How Does School Choice Affect Student Commutes in New Orleans?

By Douglas N. Harris — October 08, 2018 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans, @ERA_NOLA). This post is by Jane Arnold Lincove, Non-Resident Research Fellow at ERA-New Orleans and Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (@UMBC.)

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

Why this Research

A broad goal of school choice reforms is to provide families with more educational opportunities and influence. If families are able to select a school from multiple options, they may be more likely to find a school that meets their individual preferences and children’s unique educational needs. In turn, families’ choices to exit failing public schools may incentivize schools to improve. However, school choice policies can be hampered by conditions that limit choices in practice. One such condition is geography.

If a student cannot reasonably get to a school in the morning and return home in the afternoon, she cannot choose that school. Unsafe, unaffordable, or burdensome commutes can prevent schools from being truly available to families. This makes transportation a vital area of research for understanding how school choice works in practice.

What the Research Examines

While many cities offer some degree of choice, schools of choice are often not accessible to students. New Orleans is the only school system that requires all district and charter schools to provide free transportation to all students -- either through yellow school bus service or public transit passes. In practice, over 40 charter management organizations run daily school bus service throughout the city to make their schools accessible to students regardless of home address.

In a new study, my co-author Jon Valant and I examined how much time New Orleans students spend on school buses and how early students’ commutes to school begin. The study, recently released by the Urban Institute, looks at data from seventeen New Orleans district and public charter schools between 2015-2017.

What the Research Finds

We find that the average morning trip from a bus stop to school lasts 35 minutes. Round trip, this means that a typical bus rider could spend six hours per week on a school bus. We find that student commutes from bus stop locations are considerably faster by car, but often slower by public transit. Our results confirm anecdotal evidence about long bus rides for some New Orleans students who attend schools far from home. However, we also find that many students who live close to their schools have long school bus rides because of circuitous routes. Routing combined with early start times and the need to arrive at school in time for subsidized breakfast dictate that most school bus pick-ups occur before 7 am. Parents might not know that choosing a school close to home does not guarantee a short bus ride or extra sleep for children.

Implications for Practice

Our results show that sometimes school buses get students to school more quickly and sometimes public transit gets students to school more quickly. Perhaps school bus transit times could be shortened through better route planning or more sharing of buses or bus stops across schools. At the same time, public transit could be a more sensible choice for some students and a less burdensome and expensive choice for schools. In a city like New Orleans, schools may wish to offer students a choice of free transportation options that includes both school buses and public transit, which would allow families to decide whether school buses or public transit are better suited to their needs and tastes.

School leaders could also work toward providing families with better information about school transportation and travel times, as well as school location, to inform the educational decisions they make in a city with extensive school choice. Of course, one way to reduce commute times would be to give families more desirable school options near their homes, wherever they may live.

Previous blog posts from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans:

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

Photo: Unsplash

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.