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

San Diego Unified School District allows parents to choose schools for their children in neighborhoods where they do not live. For the district, this is a remedy to back-fill spaces not being used. For parents, it’s an opportunity to send their children to schools where they believe the education is better.

I acknowledge the historical complexity of school commuting as a remedy to education inequality. But by allowing school choice, and while noting its incredible success, the district has created another mess.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

My specific concern is that the school district’s practice, which now engages almost half of its student population, has serious traffic and environmental consequences that conflict with avowed San Diego policies on climate change and reducing our carbon footprint.

I have not seen nor heard any active discussion about how inappropriate this is.

In its “Vision 2020” plan, the district states that it wants to keep more students in neighborhood schools. I think this is the right goal, because commuting has allowed the district a way out of its responsibility to fix underperforming schools.

The history of the program is complex, having grown out of a desire to desegregate the city’s schools, but my primary focus is the environmental as well as the consequences on neighborhood cohesivity. In land use circles, we are concerned about the effect from all these automobiles on the road.

School commuting is bad for the environment because it contributes to traffic miles and congestion. It’s also time consuming and probably stressful for the parents who twice a day drive from home to school to work in the morning, and work to school (or to after school day care) to home in the afternoon.

A study from the University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law has demonstrated that 42 percent of parents across the district choose to send their kids to schools outside their neighborhoods. For a district of 130,000 students, assuming two students per household, that must be about 27,000 parents.

In addition to the 10,000 students who are daily bussed to schools outside of their neighborhoods, we are also looking at more than 20,000 parents who commute their children daily by car to another neighborhood. Twice a day, that equates to 40,000 vehicle trips.

San Diego is fully engaged in promoting better air quality and fighting climate change. Yet when parents take extra trips in autos, we have the antithesis of the city’s goals to reduce our carbon footprint.

Those of us in the land use business question the commuting practice for good reasons.

For starters, your neighborhood school is a fundamental “anchor” to your community. While its primary purpose is to educate children, schools regularly are places where parents meet and form friendships and bonds. We vote at these schools. We send our kids to play in the school yards.

When we lose touch with the anchor, we are at risk of losing touch with our sense of community. When we know each other, we watch and care for each other.

Communities throughout the San Diego region are super focused on traffic and transportation. In fact, practically every real estate development project that I work on experiences push back because communities believe that more housing equals more traffic congestion. Why are we not applying that same sensibility to parents getting into their cars to transport their kids to another part of the city, increasing congestion and complicating everyone’s commute?

I assume that parents in neighborhoods with poorer performing schools would argue that commuting gives their children an equal shot at success, and that they can’t just wait around for the district to improve schools closer to their homes. But this never-ending spiral of moving around children cannot be the answer.

What I am railing against is a practice that seems to promote this behavior rather than one which is centered on improving the “bad” neighborhood schools. While the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, perhaps a little less emphasis on commuting, and a little more emphasis on why parents must do so in the first place, ought to be the subject of a public discourse.

I have no doubt that San Diego Unified School District administrators are trying to do the right thing for all involved. What I am requesting is a call for action for them to become better community stewards.

The school district is an integral part of San Diego. They ought to step up and take a more wholistic approach to their policies.

Gary London is a parent and land-use consultant living in San Diego. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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