Saturday, February 23, 2008

But how do they accommodate extra-curricular activities?

A story in yesterday's New York Times told of a "school bus on skis" that transports students from La Pointe, on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, to school two miles across the bay in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The story's angle is really about the curiosity of this one-off contraption called a windsled. Two local brothers designed and built it, and they also maintain and operate it. The windsled transports the students only for a few weeks each year -- the time falling between that when the ferry can run and when the ice is strong enough (thicker than 11 inches!) to support vehicles.

Although we are told that about 20 students are transported from LaPointe (year-round population: 250) to school in Bayfield, no mention is made of the impact that the remoteness of their homes has on their educational opportunities. Being tied to whatever transport the district can provide across the bay presumably impedes their participation in extra-curricular activities. It would seem similar to the challenges faced by students who are bussed long distances, as in the West. Perhaps students can work on the ferry or windsled better than on a conventional school bus, but transport time is often trapped time, unproductive. Also not mentioned is the quality of rural schools. Bayfield, a town of 611 in a county of 15,000, presumably has a pretty small school district. That, in turn, likely means fewer course offerings, usually a weaker foundation for tertiary education.

The good news is that, while transporting the students by windsled costs $21K/year and the ferry costs $30K a year, the district receives both federal and state support for its transportation costs. A half-million dollar grant from the Dept. of Transport supported the building of the windsled, and the state provides additional funds to the district so that it can bear these extra transport costs.

It may seem a high subsidy for educating 20 students, but unless we decide we don't need people (including young ones) living in our rural areas (and that we want our cities to be even more populous and sprawling), it's only appropriate for government to bear it. As the state senator who helped secure funding said, "if we pay for a yellow school bus with four wheels, then we ought to pay for this too."

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