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Mobility Issues Hinder School Choice, Study Finds

With nearly two-thirds of the District's public schools deemed by the federal government to be underperforming, it isn't surprising that families are willing to travel for a school they like. Just 37 percent of all students attended their in-boundary DCPS school this year, according to the 21st Century Schools Fund.

Now a new study shows that low and moderate income District families would be even more far-flung in their enrollment patterns were it not for transportation issues. Nearly 40 percent of parents interviewed by University of Colorado researchers said lack of mobility is a barrier to school choice.

"Drivers of Choice: Parents, Transportation and School Choice," the study produced by the university's Center on Reinventing Public Education, focused on families in D.C. and Denver, interviewing 300 parents in each city with household incomes of $75,000 or less.

Among its conclusions are that low-income families are hindered not only by lack of an automobile or access to public transit, but by poor communication with school officials. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), parents in failing schools are entitled to transportation if they exercise their right under the law to transfer to a better school. But just 29 percent of D.C. parents said they discussed transportation options with schools, compared to 54 percent in Denver. Many said that better information might have influenced their choice of school.

Differences in geography, density and transportation infrastructure between the two cities are also reflected in the findings. It turns out that District families have pretty much the same morning experience as commuters across the region. Nearly a quarter of District students require 30 or more minutes to get to school, compared with only 15 percent in Denver. About 60 percent of school trips in Denver are less than 15 minutes, compared to 46 percent in the District.

Almost two-thirds of the parents surveyed, including 80 percent of parents with the lowest incomes, reported that they would choose a (hypothetical) better school farther from home if transportation were provided.

District parents, for reasons that are not spelled out, are more willing than those in Denver to have a child travel farther for a higher performing school. Fifty-five percent said they would tolerate a longer commute for a 20 point gain in test scores; 65 percent would invest more travel time for 40 point gain.

Researchers didn't have much in the way of possible remedies for the transportation gap, suggesting cash vouchers and a better effort by localities to inform parents of their rights under NCLB.

Bill Turque

By Bill Turque  |  July 23, 2009; 12:59 PM ET
Categories:  Bill Turque , Education  
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I thought DC provided lower-cost or free student passes for Metro rail/bus in lieu of maintaining a bus fleet of its own. If that's the case, why would cost be a particular objection for increased transportation to a better school? Unless they're riding an express bus, the cost to ride Metrobus is a flat rate across the city.

Posted by: legalmoose | July 23, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Legalmoose, when I was in high school in DC, they sold bus tokens for students that were much cheaper than the regular fare. Not sure if they still do that anymore though.

Posted by: futbolclif | July 23, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Well, at what age are parents supposed to be willing to put children on a bus for a solo across-town trip? This may be a solution for middle and high school students,but not for younger ones.

Posted by: terpteacher1 | July 23, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I believe that DC students are able to purchase discounted bus passes. However, that still requires them to be able to pay for the discounted bus/metro passes to be able to go to schools, like charters, outside their boundary. As a teacher, I witnessed many students who frequently missed class the first few days of every month because they couldn't afford to buy a new pass, or didn't come when they lost their monthly passes.

Other urban school systems, like Boston Public Schools, I believe provide students with passes that allow them to ride buses and the T to and from school for free. Income then doesn't limit the amount of choice a family has regarding the school the children attend.

Posted by: edpolicyponderer | July 23, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

These comments are utterly ridiculous. School starts at age 5. DC law forbids as in "it is considered child neglect" parents from putting their kids under, I believe, 7, on a bus by themselves. Thus for Elementary school which is 6 out of 12 grades of school, parents have to drive.

Etan Patz was murdered as he walked to his bus stop in NYC at age 6. That incident (and related) changed the laws that parents need to follow.

I can't find the law to quote tonight, but...

Posted by: bbcrock | July 23, 2009 8:28 PM | Report abuse

I believe that the Center on Reinventing Public Education is at the University of Washington, not the University of Colorado as the posting states.

Posted by: berubea1 | July 23, 2009 9:04 PM | Report abuse

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