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Some Districts Charge for School Bus Rides—If They Offer Transportation at All

A small but notable share of the nation’s 13,000 public school districts charge fees for some or all of their students to ride the bus each day—if they provide transportation at all.

States vary on the degree to which they require schools to offer bus service to all students who want it. They also differ widely on how much money they provide to schools to cover the growing costs of transportation.

As a result, districts have a wide range of policies and philosophies on bringing students to classrooms. Some offer free bus service to any student who wants it, while others charge fees—per ride, per month, or per year—to students who live close to school buildings, or even to all students.

The EdWeek Research Center queried a nationally representative sample of 158 school leaders and 186 district leaders between May 29 and June 19. The vast majority—84 percent—said they offer transportation and that no students pay for it.

But roughly 16 percent, or almost 1 in 6, said free bus service isn’t an option for everyone in the district.

Ten percent said they don’t provide transportation options to students. Almost 5 percent said they charge fees for some students to ride. The remaining nearly 2 percent said all of their students pay if they want to ride a bus to school.

These numbers raise alarm bells for Mark Rosenbaum, a longtime advocate and litigator for equitable access to education who currently serves as senior special counsel for strategic litigation for the civil rights-focused law firm Public Counsel.

Through his advocacy, he’s seen children in foster care and children who lack stable housing simply not go to school because they have no reliable way of getting there.

“I’m not in favor of charging fees for anything related to education,” Rosenbaum said. “But if I had to make a list of where to start, right there with books and tuition would be transportation.”

In the early 2010s, Rosenbaum was involved in litigation against the state of California that prompted the state to pass the nation’s tightest restrictions on schools’ ability to charge fees to K-12 students. Lawmakers and other officials in states including Indiana and Utah in recent years have taken steps to limit the amount of money schools can collect from students for items like textbooks, begun to scrutinize fees more closely, or attempted to ban school fees.

But those efforts typically target fees students pay for equipment like sports gear and uniforms, or for materials related to classroom instruction. Rarely, Rosenbaum said, has the legal question come up of whether transportation fees for public school students violate state constitutional rights to a free education for all.

When the issue has come before courts, the verdict has not been in favor of eliminating fees. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools can charge fees for school bus rides because some states don’t require schools to offer transportation at all.

Some, but not all, fee-charging districts waive costs for some students

School districts that charge fees for school bus rides, or decline to offer them altogether, remain a distinct minority. But even a small percentage of U.S. districts enroll thousands—or millions—of students.

Some districts make efforts to ensure that vulnerable students aren’t boxed out by transportation fees. Most district and school leaders from the EdWeek Research Center survey who said their district charges transportation fees also said they make exceptions for homeless students, students from low-income families, students with individualized education programs, or students who live close to school but would have to cross a busy road or walk through a dangerous area to get to school.

But waivers from fees can still stigmatize students whose families lack the resources to pay them, Rosenbaum said. Plus, not all districts extend the same generosity.

Districts are likely to continue to feel pressure to charge fees as a source of revenue as they navigate the fiscal storms of years to come, said Kamolika Das, local policy director for the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Das examines connections between tax policy and municipal revenue. Many states, she said, have recently implemented tax cuts that will take a dent out of state budgets in the coming years. A large number of states have also restricted the kinds of taxes local entities like school districts can raise.

When state and local revenue are down, funding for initiatives like school transportation tends to go on the chopping block.

“Often it takes a few years to see the real impact,” Das said. The lawmakers who pass such tax policies “don’t necessarily get blamed” because they’ve often left office by the time the effects become apparent.

Meanwhile, equity issues persist. Districts should do more to document the extent to which students are absent because of inadequate access to transportation, Rosenbaum said.

“These kids aren’t at the back of the bus, they’re just not on the bus at all,” he said.

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