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The San Diego Unified school board is scheduled Tuesday to consider whether to cut back on busing to the bare minimum required by law, only providing transportation for special education students, kids entitled to get to a school with better test scores under No Child Left Behind and a few other small programs.

Doing so would be a dramatic step that could reshuffle enrollment across the enormous school district, sending many students back to their neighborhood schools. Putting more emphasis on neighborhood schools has been a focus for this school board, but gutting the busing program would spark a political firestorm, upsetting parents who rely on buses to get their kids to different schools across town.

Right now, roughly 17,600 students take buses. The school district is already planning to cut its transportation budget by 20 percent, slashing it by $7.85 million. It will up the minimum ridership for each bus and only provide magnet and integration busing to kids who live at least five miles from school.

Under the existing plan, more than 4,200 students will be impacted, which could mean walking farther to a bus stop or not getting bused at all. If the school board decided to go a step further and strip back busing to the legal minimum, it would cut transportation for another 6,000 students who take buses for integration or to attend magnet schools with unique themes. That would save another $3.1 million.

A report prepared for the school board warns that gutting busing would drain enrollment from some schools and overcrowd others, if students go back to their neighborhood schools. Late last year, I zeroed in on one of those schools, Mission Bay High, where most students come from outside the neighborhood; San Diego Unified estimates that if busing were cut back to the bare minimum, Mission Bay would only be a quarter full.

Paring back busing would also disrupt magnet and integration programs. As I explained in a recent article, school choice has integrated some schools and segregated others. Cutting the choice programs that integrate schools while keeping others that segregate them could risk more isolated schools:

Schools could keep cutting back on magnets and integration busing, which cost money but integrate schools. And they could continue to let parents choose any school, which is free but segregates. Add that up and segregation could deepen.

San Diego Unified staffers have also offered the school board a third option: Keeping transportation to high schools like Mission Bay High while cutting magnet and integration busing to other kinds of schools. That would save $1.2 million instead of $3 million.

The school board is slated to go over the report Tuesday morning and could decide then whether to cut back transportation more deeply than it already plans to. I’ll be there to see what happens.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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