Friday, December 23, 2011

The wheels on the bus may no longer go round and round in rural California

Riding a yellow bus to school is a rite of passage for many young American students, and it is a necessity for rural students who live on farms, isolated mountain roads, and distant desert properties. In California, approximately 1 million students use bus transportation to travel to school. With upcoming budget cuts, that mode of transportation to schools may soon be limited or nonexistent in California.

According to the Fresno Bee, Governor Jerry Brown announced last week that funding for home-to-school transportation will be cut in half starting in January 2012, a reduction of $248 million. Governor Brown said the reason for the reduction is insufficient state revenues. Funding for bus services has declined dramatically over the years. Around 20 years ago, the state funded 80% of bus services. Now the state funds 35% and soon it will only fund 17%. According to an Associated Press article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the transportation funding reductions are a part of a package of trigger cuts for a variety of state programs. Schools will also see funding reductions in their revenue limit and child development and preschool programs.

The cuts will negatively affect rural areas more than urban metropolises. While a lack of school buses compromises the safety of urban students, there may still be public transportation available to shuttle children to school. Many rural communities do not have public transportation. If school districts can no longer afford to pay for school buses, parents will have to drive their children to school, or the children will have to remain at home.

Donna Linton, a single parent from Santa Ysabel, California, a small, unincorporated community in San Diego County, is one of many rural parents who may suffer if the funding reductions eliminate school buses. According to a San Diego Union-Tribune article, to take her three children to school, she will have to drive 30 minutes one way to Julian, California, population 1,502. Carpooling is not an option as she and her neighbors do not have large enough cars to carry more than their own children. The cost of gas for these trips will also be difficult to bear. Children whose families do not have cars or flexible work schedules will have to rely on neighbors for transportation to school, or they will have to continue their studies at home. Homeschooling may be impossible if the children's parents work and others are unable to care for them.

The amount of funding per student each school district will lose also shows the disproportionate affect the funding cuts will have on rural schools. For example, officials claim that larger school districts in metropolitan areas, like Burbank Unified School District in Burbank, California (population 103,340), will only lose $10 per student with the cuts, while Sierra Unified School District in rural Auberry, California (population 2,369) will lose $355 per student. The areas that will be hardest hit, regarding funding per student, are the ones that need the money most: isolated regions where unemployment is high.

Another issue, which the San Diego Union-Tribune discussed, is that California public schools receive state funding based on attendance. Ramona Unified School District in Ramona, California (population 20,292) buses 1,500 students to school. If only a quarter of those students are no longer able to attend school because of decreased bus transportation, the monetary consequences could be devastating for the small school district.

Rural school districts will have to find other ways to pay for home-to-school transportation. Some may argue it is better to cut transportation funds rather than classroom funds. However, if rural districts have to use their general fund money for transportation, less funding will be going into the classroom. While schools can make cuts in other areas of transportation, according to an article in the Merced Sun-Star, it is difficult to do before this round of cuts because school districts usually hire transportation employees for year-long periods. To continue their transportation services, schools also will likely have to dip into reserve funds, which are supposed to be backup funds for other programs. Once the extra funds are gone, the buses may disappear.

The funding reductions also disproportionately affect low-income and special needs students. Some students take the bus 40 minutes from Ramona, California into the Mission Valley area of San Diego if they are not able to receive proper services in Ramona. Without bus services, these students will not be able to receive the specialized instruction they need. In addition, while public transportation is more accessible in urban areas, families will need to pay for transportation if schools can longer afford bus services. Some may not be able to afford that cost.

The state's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District, is trying to use the legal system to prevent the funding reductions. Upon news of the reduced funding, the school board decided to file an immediate restraining order to block the transportation cuts. The California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators are considering joining the lawsuit because of the negative impact the cuts will have on low-income and special needs students. According to an article in the Huffington Post, Governor Brown believes the cuts are legal and that a United States Supreme Court case will give the state greater authority to reduce funding to various programs. It is unclear to which case the Governor was referring. One can hope that Los Angeles Unified is successful and that the government will shift the cuts to another program that does not negatively affect education.

When education funding reductions disproportionately affect rural, low-income, and special needs students, Californians need to rethink how the government should use its resources. This funding reduction seems to be another example of the government forgetting about rural people and places. Over the past four years, the state has reduced education funding by approximately $18 billion. Without a well-educated population, California will be ill equipped to deal with the next economic crisis. To ensure children in California receive an education, we first need to make sure they can get to the classroom.

1 comment:

JWHS said...

I doubt legal action will overrule this change. I feel there was a SCOTUS case on this, but I can't find it. Nevertheless, wealth is not a suspect-class so the law will only get intermediate scrutiny. Saving money is generally an important state interest and this does seem related enough to pass scrutiny.