A line of San Diego Unified school buses. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Buses no longer run from Michelle Huffaker’s neighborhood in University City to the magnet school her daughter attends, more than 20 miles away in Paradise Hills. So in the mornings, Huffaker drives her daughter two miles to Clairemont, where she catches the bus to school.

Now, on top of the $500 bill she pays to the school district for busing each year, she also pays bus fees for the MTS bus her daughter has to catch when neither parent is available to pick her up from school. Those cost $2.50 a ride, or $36 for a monthly pass.

“It’s not free and equal access to education if you can’t afford to get your child to school. Part of going to school is getting to school,” Huffaker said. “It should be illegal to charge for that.”

Bus fees are fairly common in California, one of 12 states that allows school districts to charge parents fees for the school bus. San Diego Unified started charging in the 2010-2011 school year.

The district provides free transportation to students who have disabilities and those who qualify for free lunch – but that doesn’t mean any student who qualifies for free lunch qualifies for free transportation. It means they qualify where busing is available.

For an increasing number of students, buses aren’t available to take them to school at all.

In the past seven years, the district has slashed its busing options.

In 2010-2011, the district ran 2,300 bus routes and transported 17,500 students daily. This year, it’s down to 1,439 routes moving 9,330 students a day. And the district continues to cut.

Last year, for example, the district stopped busing new students who needed transportation out of schools in Program Improvement, a program created under No Child Left Behind that gave students the right to transfer out of struggling schools. Program Improvement will no longer be a consideration for busing, but the district said it will continue to offer transportation to students already being bused under the program.

In 2011, the district increased the distance magnet school students had to walk before they qualified for busing. Where busing is available, magnet students used to qualify for transportation if they had to walk two miles to get to school. Now, they don’t qualify unless they have to walk five miles or more.

Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Policy, said she’s concerned to hear that students are not only losing access to buses, but that the district is charging fees and sending parents to a collections agency if they can’t pay on time.

“I’m horrified to hear that a school district is bilking parents for school bus fees. California’s Constitution says that children have a right to a free public education and this practice undermines that fundamental right.”

Doesn’t Feel Like a Choice

In a weird way, Huffaker having to pay $500 a year for her daughter to ride the school bus is good news.

After a year of unemployment, Huffaker landed a job last year. The new job meant financial relief for her family. But because Huffaker’s children qualified for free meals when she was unemployed, her daughter also qualified for free transportation to school. Landing a job pushed her over the income threshold for subsidized meals and transportation.

“It’s a real financial burden to have to pay the $500 a year for this bus,” said Huffaker. A family that doesn’t qualify for free meals doesn’t necessarily have heaps of cash lying around, she said, especially if they’re getting out of a financial hole dug during months of unemployment.

Families who can’t pay fees on time are subject to additional financial burdens. In 2011, the year after San Diego Unified first imposed bus fees, they began sending parents to a collections agency if fees weren’t paid by July. In the 2014-2015 school alone, the district sent 380 parents to a collections agency for not paying their school bus fees.

As a PTA mom with a long history of supporting district schools, Huffaker knew the district’s finances were tight. But until she got the bill for the school bus, she’d always assumed the district offered free transportation to magnet schools.

Magnet schools – district-run schools structured around a specialty, like the School of Creative and Performing Arts, which her daughter attends – were originally intended to promote integration, bringing more affluent students to low-income neighborhoods, or vice versa. For now, the district provides transportation for students headed to magnet schools, but parents who don’t qualify for free meals must pay.

Of course, parents can always avoid bus fees if students attend their assigned neighborhood school and live close enough for kids to walk. But some neighborhoods, bisected by interstates or busy streets, simply aren’t safely walkable.

And while sending her daughter to a magnet school might sound like a choice Huffaker made, she said it doesn’t feel like one. In grade school, her daughter struggled with a learning disability that made it harder for her to thrive in the schools near her house, which seemed to prioritize high test scores in core subjects like math and science over music or performing arts.

“Magnet schools have really been a boon for her learning needs,” said Huffaker. “She felt like a failure in school until she went to a school that could cater to her strengths.”

School Choice … for Parents With Cars

San Diego Unified leaders talk often about providing all students access to a quality education.

Before the window to apply to schools of choice – the program that lets parents sign up for schools outside of the one closest to their home, space permitting – closed earlier this month, the district’s communications staff blasted out promotions on Twitter and press releases. The Saturday before the window closed, the district held an “Enrollment Options Fair,” where it offered free refreshments and one-on-one enrollment assistance so parents could find the one school that’s right for their kids.

But school choice takes on a different meaning for families who don’t have cars or simply have a hard time arranging their schedules to get their kids to school and back.

“The kids are being forced into their neighborhood schools,” said Christy Williams, president of the local California School Employees Association chapter, which represents school bus drivers.

“There’s school choice, but if you can’t pay for a bus, or get a ride from your parents, your neighborhood schools is the choice – that or you go to a charter school. I think that’s part of the reason we’re losing so many students to charter schools.”

Enrollment numbers show that over the past seven years, charter school enrollment has steadily increased. Meanwhile, the percentage of students staying in their assigned schools stayed mostly flat.

Reductions in busing may have played a role. In 2011-2012, the year after the district first imposed bus fees, 4,000 students lost access to buses. Of those 4,000 kids who lost transportation, 9 percent left the district altogether, according to the district’s numbers.

Space available, families in San Diego Unified can apply to enroll their children in any school across the district. But for families without cars, the neighborhood school, or a school that provides transportation, are the only options.

That means students living in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods, for example, which has a high concentration of low-income families, are more likely to attend schools where students are segregated by race, class and language. Those schools are also more likely to see perennially low test scores and high teacher turnover.

Incidentally, the year the district started slashing busing in 2011 at roughly the same time it was ramping up its push to keep more kids in their neighborhood schools.

School board member John Lee Evans, who’s often credited with being the architect of the district’s neighborhood schooling effort, said the decision to cut busing was related strictly to budgetary concerns – not an effort to force more kids into their neighborhood schools.

“I would like to provide more transportation rather than less,” Evans said. “For example, there are many neighborhood schools that do not have safe walking areas, and I would like to provide home to school transportation. But we have financial constraints.”

In financially challenging times, district officials have to make difficult choices, he said. And when it comes down to a choice between keeping school libraries open or providing transportation, Evans said he’d prioritize libraries.

Even so, San Diego Unified is unlikely to cut busing altogether. In addition to students with disabilities, for whom the district is obligated to provide transportation, schools in areas of town like Mission Bay wouldn’t have enough students to stay open if buses stopped rolling.

It remains to be seen what reductions in busing will mean for segregation, however. A VOSD analysis from 2011 found that schools that already have a smaller portion of students of color would get even whiter if the district ended busing. Overall, more schools districtwide would be integrated by ethnicity if all students attended their assigned, neighborhood schools.

But that wouldn’t change the fact that families without vehicles would have more limited options when it comes to school choice. And Lance Wren, former chapter president of the California School Employees Association, said that’s a problem.

“I believe schools in every part of town are providing an excellent service. But if you don’t have faith in your neighborhood school, and you want to opt out, you should have the choice to send your children elsewhere,” Wren said.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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