California school bus funding has stalled for 40 years

courtesy of the LA Times On May 31, 2022, in Camp Meeker, Calif., a school bus arrives in the morning to transport students to West Sonoma County Union High School District. According to The Times’ Paul Kuroda

While schools in rural Del Norte County were closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school buses were the only thing keeping students’ lives somewhat normal.

Teachers and staff members piled into the yellow school buses to assist with the distribution of brown bags filled with free meals and supplies. Students who had been unable to return to their classrooms were becoming more and more of a concern as they made their way down dangerous back roads known for landslides.

“That school bus is a lifeline,” said Jeff Harris, superintendent of schools in Del Norte County, California’s northwestern corner. More than 4,000 K-12 students live in Del Norte, a town surrounded by redwood forests, and the majority of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Transportation services were on the table when the district’s finances were tight in 2019. But when the community’s opinion became clear: Buses are a necessity, they backed down.

According to Harris, “Our students’ ability to access education just becomes critically endangered if we don’t provide transportation services.”. Rural school districts cannot reduce chronic absenteeism and help financially strapped families if they do not provide transportation.”

Even if a student lives a long distance from school, California does not require school districts to provide buses. Despite rising inflation, increased demand, a sharp rise in gas prices, and a projected record-high state budget surplus, the state continues to pay the same amount for school transportation as it has since 1981.

Some students with disabilities or those who are homeless are entitled to free transportation under federal law, but other districts are responsible for providing buses.

(Paul Kuroda / The New York Times) On May 31, 2022, students at West Sonoma County Union High School District boarded the school bus. According to The Times’ Paul Kuroda

Districts across California have reduced or eliminated bus routes, charged parents hundreds of dollars, or encouraged students to take public transportation since state officials frozen school transportation funding levels more than 40 years ago.

Sacramento County’s San Juan Unified School District ended its bus service in 2011, citing post-recession financial difficulties. Placer County’s Rocklin Unified School District offers busing, but it costs $350 per year per student, with some exceptions for low-income families.

According to the most recent National Household Travel Survey conducted by the Federal Highway Administration in 2017, California has the lowest percentage of public school students that are transported by bus, with fewer than 9% of students in the state.

Among California’s students, more than two-thirds took private transportation to school each day, while only 18% walked and 2% took a city bus or other public transportation, the survey found.

There is a growing concern about students who do not have parents who can provide a daily ride to school as the vast wealth gap in California widens.

There is a lot of money in the state’s budget, and school leaders are calling for the state to cover the entire cost of school buses. School administrators say it’s an important step toward eliminating inequities and increasing students’ use of what research shows is the safest, most reliable mode of transportation.

As many as 5% of the 938 school districts that reported financial data to the state did not report any transportation spending for the 2019-2020 academic year, a Times analysis found. 9000 pupils go to school in districts that don’t spend any money on busing.

The school bus fleets of states like Florida, Delaware, and New York are among the most extensive in the country. Some states pay the entire bill, while others reimburse districts based on their ability to pay or on the number of miles they drive and the number of passengers they carry.

For free school transportation for students, California ranks at the bottom of the pack.” Many states have provided free school bus transportation to all public school students for decades. It’s not one of those states, though “Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley, released a statement.

With a little help from the state, Skinner has proposed a bill that would mandate that all students in public schools receive transportation by 2027. She emphasizes the positive aspects of the costly legislation, such as increased public safety, increased school enrollment, and reduced traffic and vehicle emissions due to the use of school buses.

The bill is one of a number of legislative proposals aimed at resolving the decades-old issue.

State-funded school bus transportation for low-income students of all ages and grades is recommended in a $1.2-billion legislative budget proposal for Gov. Gavin Newsom. The proposal would also prohibit school districts from charging parents for transportation.

While state and local officials argue over who should pay for school transportation, many students, particularly those living in rural areas, are unable to attend school.

(Paul Kuroda / The New York Times) Harbor, 10, is greeted by his father, Justin Villarreal, at the bus stop in Camp Meeker, California. According to The Times’ Paul Kuroda

“Absolutely terrible” country roads criss-crossed Cheryl Witteman’s two-acre property in Sebastopol, a quiet town where vineyards outnumber residents, for many years.

There was no bus at the end of her long driveway when classes resumed in August. The Sonoma County Union High School District decided to discontinue the Wittemans’ routes as a cost-savings measure.

When she can work from home and be at school when the bell rings, Witteman considers herself fortunate, but she worries about the families who can’t afford to do the same. She drives her child to and from school for about 80 minutes each day, a trip that has become increasingly expensive as gas prices in Sonoma County have risen above $6.60 per gallon.

“Our household makes a decent living. We don’t have much money. To say the least, it’s an uphill battle. It’s a real pain in the neck for my family “she informed me. “Buses level the playing field. There is no tier system if everyone rides the bus.”

This time last year, the Sonoma school district was scrambling to help families who had lost their bus service, and school officials asked parents if they could provide a ride for other students.

The vice president of the Sonoma County Union High School District board, Jeanne Bassett Fernandes, is concerned that fewer bus routes have led some families to continue distance learning that began earlier in the pandemic. According to studies, virtual school does not meet the needs of the majority of students, who prefer face-to-face instruction.

Parents who can’t afford the district’s $240 annual bus fare and those who have to juggle their children’s school and work schedules worry about Bassett Fernandes. However, she also claims that increasing district spending on operating bus routes beyond what it already does isn’t feasible financially.

“Some people are going to have a hard time affording this. We believe that some children have not been attending school because their parents cannot afford to pay for gas to get them there “This is what Bassett Fernandes had to say. “There’s a price to pay for this,” he said.

For one thing, Del Norte County Superintendent Harris wonders if the state would cover school busing costs if it were possible. According to him, the money the district currently spends on transportation could be used to hire 13 new teachers each year or to expand student support services.

Del Norte County has one of the state’s highest “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) scores, a measure of trauma and abuse linked to a variety of poor academic and health outcomes in children and young adults.. As many as 14% of the district’s students identify as Native American, making transportation to and from remote tribal areas a necessity.

Harris is concerned about the high opioid overdose and violent crime rates in the county, as well as the “economic stress coupled with rural boredom” that school officials described in a recent grant proposal seeking more funding.

He said that Pelican Bay State Prison, a former logging industry hub, has been overlooked in budget negotiations in Sacramento, which is more than 250 miles away.

“We’re using our current funds just to get kids to school,” Harris said. A “real equity issue” is what we’re concerned about.

The school funding formula in California was created to allow school districts to make their own budgetary decisions. Schools’ budgets rise in tandem with the state’s. School officials, on the other hand, argue that transportation should be a given regardless of how much money the district receives from the state.

“Over time, school funding has ups and downs, but transportation is an enduring need that requires a stable funding source,” said Troy Flint, spokesperson for the California School Boards Assn., which is sponsoring a bill by Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) that would require the state to reimburse school bus costs in full. “We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul right now.”

The state’s school transportation funding system was deemed “irrational” and “outdated” by the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2014. If California does not change its school transportation funding formula, then the review recommends it. But it’s still the same thing.

According to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 20% of low-income families lack access to a car, and the majority of their children board a bus to get to school. Even vehicle ownership does not necessarily mean vehicle accessibility, a 2021 report from the bureau warned.

(Paul Kuroda / The New York Times) A student boards the bus in rural Camp Meeker, Calif. According to The Times’ Paul Kuroda

The state’s Black and Native American students are more than twice as likely to be chronically absent from school than their white peers. The state does not track why students are absent, but national organizations such as Attendance Works point to lack of transportation as one barrier.

While California is home to many urban centers close to campuses, school district leaders say universal transportation services could also alleviate safety concerns about students’ walking paths and unsupervised city bus rides.

Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the nation, does not provide buses for the general student body. The district launched a pilot program last year that provides free Metro bus and train rides to students.

Students who have a potentially dangerous walking route to school may receive a bus ride “on a limited basis,” according to LAUSD’s website. Just last month, the Los Angeles City Council proposed barring homeless encampments within 500 feet of schools after hearing concerns from parents.

“We want to remove all barriers for kids getting to school, rural or urban,” LAUSD board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin said. “There are a variety of issues and family circumstances that prohibit kids from getting to school on time. If we could provide transportation for all who request it, I think learning would skyrocket.”

While California’s school funding formula is complex, Dave Walrath, who worked on the issue at both the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the state Department of Finance, says it comes down to a simple question with an obvious answer: Should every child have a right to attend school?

“Yes, we’re at record levels of funding that we hope continues, but we also have a significant amount of need for just direct classroom instruction,” said Walrath, who is now an education lobbyist. “Every district has its own situation and fiscal pressures. Right now, there’s a disproportionately negative impact on those who have the highest need for transportation.”

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Justin Villarreal leaned down to hug his 10-year-old son, Harbor, before the yellow bus came to pick him up at 7:38 a.m. as it always does at Camp Meeker, an unincorporated community in Sonoma County just minutes from the ocean. He and his wife, Sarah, coordinate driving their four children to a bus stop 15 minutes from their home each day, as routes are limited.

The Villarreal children, 7 to 15 years old, are able to ride for free with a waiver from the school district for low-income families. The oldest, Arraya, works at a local coffee shop so she can save for a car. Her parents plan to one day lean on her for help with rides for her siblings.

Justin Villareal, an energetic dad who wears his hat backward and runs a landscaping business, jokes that he and his wife are superhuman. Their routine is often comfortable chaos, as he loads the kids up in his white work truck for the next basketball practice or the morning bus stop.

“We have so much going on,” Villareal said, thinking about what day-to-day life would be without the school bus. “It’s super huge to our family — and necessary.”

Staff writer Salma Loum contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.