According to a recent National School Choice Week survey, nearly half of all families are seeking to exercise educational choice for the upcoming school year. This increased interest in accessing previously inaccessible learning environments is due, no doubt, to the recent passage of numerous bills expanding public and private educational options.
The numbers are clear: The US has made a lot of progress spreading education freedom. But the work is far from over. For new policies like public-school open enrollment or education savings accounts to achieve their potential, state leaders need to help families overcome a critical barrier: transportation.
Research suggests that student access to transportation to school plays a significant role in attendance and academic performance — especially for those exercising educational choice. A 2009 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education revealed that over a quarter of parents surveyed in Denver and Washington, D.C., noted that “transportation issues influenced their school choice, or that they would have made a different school choice if they had enjoyed better transportation options.” Florida’s private tax-credit scholarship program has experienced similar issues as recently as 2018 when a report by EdChoice found 30 percent of parents cited transportation as a reason for their difficulty in finding a suitable school.
Opponents of educational choice may argue this barrier is insurmountable. However, providing direct funding to families for transportation costs would both expand educational opportunities and incentivize the K-12 transportation system to offer more individualized options that cater to each student’s transportation needs.
Fortunately, some policymakers have provided a blueprint for empowering parents and families who understand the needs of children best. For instance, many state legislators are now advocating for education savings accounts (ESAs) instead of vouchers because their flexibility allows parents to use them for nearly any educational need, including transportation.
While ESAs are currently available to only around 20 percent of students, it is crucial as they grow in availability that legislators continue to allow funds to be put toward the individual transportation needs of each student and family.
Moreover, families who choose to attend public schools can also benefit from support in the form of direct funding for K-12 transportation. For example, Wisconsin allows families of a certain income status to transport their children across district boundaries to high-quality public schools they are not zoned for and receive a reimbursement of around $1,200 per year for transportation costs.
Similar programs should be extended to all families in the public school system, especially those who exercise their right to choose to attend charter schools, which often do not receive distinct funding for transportation support, or other public schools outside their district.
Currently, the cost of transportation disproportionately affects low-income, Black, and Hispanic families, who are less likely to have access to an automobile. Among lower-income families, 20 percent do not own a vehicle, and those who do shoulder significant financial burdens to transport their children to school.
Nonetheless, transportation is often overlooked and under-discussed by legislators and advocates of educational choice bills, jeopardizing the accessibility and effectiveness of these programs for many students from lower-income households.
In fact, most states do not even have laws on the books specifying who is responsible for transporting students crossing district lines, leaving many families without a helping hand to access educational freedom. And some newly passed ESA laws, such as Iowa’s, do not list transportation as an allowable expense.
This is an unacceptable oversight. If the school system of the future wants to recognize the needs of every student, it’ll need a transportation system to match.
By providing funding for transportation directly to families through ESAs, transportation scholarships or reimbursements, states can help ensure diverse education options are accessible to every student.