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.”