Drop School Bus Fees and Improve Academic Success?

I live in a town with a struggling school system. The administrators focus on test scores and ways to improve scores all day long and have had little success over the past few years. At the same time, the school committee has been looking for ways to cut costs. One way was by eliminating the free school bus system and instituting a pay-to-ride system instead. State law demands that kids in K-6 that live farther than 2 miles from the school are provided with transportation, but what about the kids that don’t live more than 2 miles from the school? Well, their parents have to pay.

In my state, that charge ranges from about $100 per student to over $500 per student depending on where you live. The idea is to reduce the cost for the district to get the kids to and from school. If you can’t (or simply don’t want to) pay, you’re responsible for bringing your kids to and from school. Seems easy enough, 2 miles isn’t THAT far to walk, right?

Wrong. You see, I live in Massachusetts, where in the winter the daytime highs are often below freezing. We have days where you cannot go outside for more than 10 minutes without getting frost bite. Walking your 6-year old and their younger sibling 2 miles to school can’t really happen on those days, so if you didn’t pony up the money for the school bus and your car is broken down, your child is missing school. Meanwhile, the kid 1/2 a mile down the road is riding for free to school on the warm school bus, even though his family is better-off financially than yours. His mother never has to worry about how she’s going to get her child to school or how she’s going to pay for his bus ride. Makes perfect sense, right?

In many parts of Eastern Mass, the towns were not designed for the type of industry they now house. There are tractor trailers on back roads, narrow streets, a lack of sidewalks and other hazards. On top of that, the size of the tractor trailers have increased. In the winter, snow is a hinderance to walking with or without a sidewalk. Because schools are strapped for cash, many that have these pay-to-ride policies are not employing crossing guards.

Between the traffic, the lack of sidewalks and the lack of crossing guards, walking isn’t an option for a lot of the kids in the pay-zone. Add in a couple younger siblings and you’ve really got a problem.

Kids in these pay-to-ride towns are missing school because they can’t ride the school bus. Kindergarteners are missing school because of where their families live. Still think it’s not a big deal? A study titled, “Linking Getting to School with Going to School,” found that providing a bus increasing school attendance by 20 percent for kindergarteners. Kindergarten attendance has been linked to academic performance later in life and in turn, lifetime earning potential. Kids that are in the pay-zone are being disadvantaged for the rest of their lives if their parents can’t afford the sometimes outrageous school bus fees that their neighbors down the road don’t have to pay. The selective tax is a burden not only on parents, but on the kids as well.

I’m calling on Massachusetts lawmakers to put our kids first and to keep our state number 1 in the nation for education. Our youngest, most vulnerable population deserves the opportunity to go to school, regardless of where they live. Schools need to provide equal transportation opportunity to all students, not just those living more than 2 miles from the school.

I was told by one lawmaker that this wasn’t possible because of budget cuts due to MassHealth eating up half of the state budget. There simply wasn’t enough money to provide the towns with money for busing. Our Democratic state lawmakers just voted themselves large raises — I think they can find some money in the budget for school buses for our kids.

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