There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about expanding school choice, from Betsy Devos through her ongoing confirmation process to our state’s legislature and governor.   But there is one essential aspect of school choice that I haven’t heard much about: transportation to and from school.

Often missing from these discussions is consideration of how transportation challenges limit the value of school choice.  Putting the broader questions of school choice aside for this post, it’s nonetheless clear that any school choice program that does not comprehensively address transportation will fall short of providing opportunities to all of our children.

While some school choice programs and options in Georgia do include some transportation, it is usually from collection points, like a grocery store parking lot that may not be within walking distance for potential students. But in many cases, school choice programs in Georgia do not include any transportation at all.

Who can drive their kids to school?

In many Georgia cities more than 10% of households do not own a car.  For example, the following is a list of some Georgia cities and the percentage of households without cars:

Albany – 14.3%

Atlanta – 16.9%

Brookhaven – 12.2%

Columbus – 10.7%

Savannah – 12.1%

See http://www.governing.com/gov-data/car-ownership-numbers-of-vehicles-by-city-map.html

Even for households with cars, you need a parent or guardian who has the time to drive.   With approximately 40% of Georgia’s children living in homes with only one parent, this time commitment is a significant burden.  See http://spotlightonpoverty.org/states/georgia/.  Even if a single parent wants to commit the time, effort and travel costs of driving, doing so may not be an option if the single parent works retail, shift work at a factory or has another type of job where schedules are variable or don’t line up with school hours.

Heck, my family has two cars and two parents that share driving responsibilities for day care, and scheduling all of the pickups and drops offs can already be a logistical nightmare.  Luckily we have four grandparents and many friends and neighbors with cars who can help us out in a pinch.   These are all privileges that my family is fortunate enough to enjoy, but I believe our education policies should strive to provide equal access to educational opportunities regardless of a family’s situation.

So with school choice policy, let’s think more about differences in car ownership, family structures, work schedules and the likelihood that extended family and friends can lend a hand picking the kids up from school.

Without changes, school choice programs are most likely to benefit children from wealthier, two-parent homes that have office jobs, two cars and strong network of extended family and friends.  Of course there will be students from homes that don’t fit this mold who will find a way to make school choice programs work for them.  However, if, on average, such students cannot make school choice programs work for them, then this may lead to even greater inequities between the educational opportunities of our state’s children.

Whether we like or dislike President Trump or candidate Bernie Sanders, they rightfully recognized a disturbing trend – public policy has often provided greater benefits to certain groups of people instead of focusing on the common good for all people.  I think that the evidence is compelling that if a school choice program does not address transportation, then it is likely to provide greater benefits to those who already enjoy so many while practically excluding many people who may already be a step behind.

So how can we focus on the common good by improving educational opportunities for all people?  Obviously having excellent local schools with buses would be a great outcome, but to keep the focus on school choice, I am going to assume for a second that we will continue to have school choice.

Some states include transportation in their school choice programs

The good news is that many other states have addressed transportation in the context of school choice.   Here is a great 50-sate summary of how other states are doing this.  http://ecs.force.com/mbdata/mbquestNB2?rep=CS1524.  While one would have to do some work to figure out funding for transportation, other states have done it and I believe Georgia has the resources as a state to make this happen.

For areas of the state with safe, reliable and extensive public transit, perhaps these resources could help address this problem.  If anyone knows of examples of this working successfully, please let me know!

It is not hard to imagine a not-too-distant future where services like uberPOOL and autonomous cars and buses may play a role in getting kids to school, whether it is a charter school or the neighborhood school.  In fact there are already a few of ride-sharing programs targeted to families with kids. See https://ridezum.com/, http://www.kangoapp.co/, and http://www.hopskipdrive.com/, for example.  Some improvements to technology, safety and market penetration are needed, but a charter school providing and paying for services like these as an option to its students would help ensure all families and students could make charter schools work for them.

The broader question of what role school choice plays in improving our education system is complex, and I am sure I will write more on this in the future.   But for now I’ve concluded that I cannot support a new school choice program unless it provides and pays for transportation comparable to what is offered through the neighborhood schools.

Again, we need to focus on the common good and improving educational opportunities for all of our children. I strongly encourage our local, state and federal policy makers to focus on these same goals.