Transportation: The key to school choice

school choice_2While every student in America has an assigned school, that local institution isn’t always the best fit for every student. Prior to the introduction of school choice, there wasn’t much a student (or their parents, guardians or advocate) could do to enroll them in a better-suited school. 

Sure, some families had the privilege of selecting a private school for students, but private education often comes with a steep price tag. So, too, does moving to a better school district. It’s for reasons like these that most students — and especially the most vulnerable — were destined to attend their locally assigned public schools.

Fortunately in recent years, more and more states have introduced school choice programs that allow students to enroll in other schools that are better suited to handle their unique needs. 

In this article, we dive into school choice and public school open enrollment, touch on school choice trends, and review the policies and legislation that affect school choice programs. We’ll also examine how transportation plays a vital role in ensuring all students have equitable access to the education that’s right for them.

What is school choice?

School choice refers to publicly funded, policy-backed programs that allow students to select a school that meets their needs. In the past, families with resources could select a desirable private school or move to a better school district to provide their children with better education. Today, government-backed school choice programs are designed to offer educational flexibility to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

School choice programs help students enroll in charter schools, magnet schools or public schools outside of a student’s assigned school. When a public high school accepts students from outside its boundaries, this is sometimes referred to as open enrollment. States (or other defined regions) that support this approach — which is also known as inter-district or intra-district choice — allow students to choose which public school to attend.

School choice programs also allow for homeschooling, hybrid homeschooling, town tuition and more. They also help to reduce the cost of private schools through education savings accounts (ESAs), school vouchers and tax-credit education savings accounts (ESAS). It’s important to note, though, that school choice programs vary from state to state and school district to school district. 

While some version of school choice has existed since the late 19th century, school choice as we know it today began in the early 1990s, when Wisconsin started a school voucher program. That same year, Minnesota enacted a law that allowed charter schools to form. For the more than three decades that followed, school choice has increased in popularity and visibility. 

What does school choice look like across the United States?

According to data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 2019, over 42% of public school families reported public school choice was available to them. Over 35% of respondents considered other schools for students in their household, and over 80% said that students under their care were enrolled in their first-choice schools.

According to information shared by National School Choice Week, 14 states require all traditional public schools to participate in inter-district open enrollment. Other states have stricter guidelines for open enrollment, only requiring some schools to participate or setting precise criteria for which students qualify to select another public school. 

Despite the many benefits, some experts see school choice as controversial. These experts believe school choice can favor parents and guardians who understand the programs, have the resources to advocate for their children, and know how to access and unlock the publicly funded, sometimes-complicated benefits. 

On the other hand, there is data that suggest some vulnerable groups — including students with special needs — benefit greatly from school choice programs. According to EdChoice, more than 58,000 students actively participate in school choice programs that support students with special needs. Many states, in fact, lean on school choice programs to provide better educational opportunities to students with special needs, whether it be through school vouchers, tax-credit programs or other initiatives.

How does school choice different for students who live far away or face transportation challenges?

In a perfect world, school choice programs would ease the educational inequity between students who reside in higher-income, better-performing school districts and those who live elsewhere. Ideally, school choice programs help more students — especially the most vulnerable ones — enroll at a school that’s an excellent fit for them. 

While school choice is intended to boost educational equity, there’s clear evidence that not all students have the same access to the same schools. Even in the most generous of states or regions, intra-district public school open enrollment will always favor the students who have the most resources. After all, when a student has a short, stress-free commute, it’s much easier for them to focus on sleep, extracurriculars, homework and much more. 

The farther students live from their school of choice, the more likely they will struggle to arrive to class on time and attend school regularly. This is especially true of the most vulnerable populations of students, including those experiencing homelessness, those living in foster care and those with special needs. 

Of course, there are solutions for these students. Take, for example, Tolleson Union High School District in Arizona, which has partnered with HopSkipDrive to fulfill individualized student transportation needs. Working with HopSkipDrive, Tolleson secured a $2 million grant to enact a unique hub-and-spoke transportation model. This system relies on individualized, alternative transportation provided by HopSkipDrive CareDrivers, who shuttle students — including those who live outside of district boundaries — to a centralized bus stop. From that hub, students ride on a school bus together to class. On the way home, CareDrivers transport each student home individually. 

While the model works well for all students, Tolleson reports that it’s been especially helpful for students who live farther away from campus, including students experiencing homelessness and in foster care.

Whether a school district offers ample school choice programs or allows for open enrollment only under extenuating circumstances, it’s important to ensure that all students — no matter where they enroll in school — have access to safe, reliable transportation that helps them unlock the education they deserve.

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