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Unintended consequences of school choice

School choice was created as an alternative to forced desegregation. It has proven popular with parents, allowed urban districts to retain white middle-class students, and is encouraged by the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. But it also has had unexpected implications for transportation.

These days, it's not uncommon for five students who live on the same city block to be bused or driven to five different schools in five different areas of town even though they all live within walking distance of the same neighborhood school.

Assistant Professor Elizabeth Wilson became interested in the implications of school choice one morning as she biked near her home in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood. She found herself riding behind five school buses, choking on exhaust fumes and wondering about the impact of busing on the environment, energy use, and transportation.

Wilson decided to take a closer look at school travel. The initial analysis was very simple: Wilson, Kevin Krizek, former researcher at the Humphrey School, and graduate student Ryan Wilson compared the PTA list from the neighborhood school attended by Wilson's daughter with the list from a citywide school attended by the child of a friend.

They geocoded the addresses and, using national data, categorized each student as "walk" or "not walk." For students in the "not walk" category, she created two scenarios. In the first, students took the bus. In the second, they were driven to school.

The researchers determined that, compared with the neighborhood school, the citywide school had six times fewer walkers. Students traveled 4.5 times as many miles, and this travel created between three and 4.5 times the amount of criteria pollutants and greenhouse gases.

In the scenario with bus service, emissions were reduced and the number of miles traveled decreased by 30 or 40 percent compared to the scenario in which students were driven to school. No bus service reduced the cost to the school system. But in all scenarios, the neighborhood school came out ahead.

In the next phase of the study Wilson, Krizek, and Julian Marshall, an assistant professor of civil engineering, surveyed parents of grade-school children in St. Paul and Roseville. The survey included questions about modes of travel, concerns about travel, and demographic information.

Survey results confirmed the initial analysis: distance from school affects the choice of travel mode. Results also showed that local data are useful. This includes information about actual rates of walking, busing, and driving, as well as the use of different modes of travel to and from school.

The most surprising finding was that white and non-white parents had different attitudes toward school travel. Non-white parents, for example, had more concerns about safety, including children's safety while waiting at the bus stop and walking home. They were less concerned about long bus rides, however. Researchers learned from school personnel that this was because many non-white parents used bus service as proxy childcare.

These concerns are extremely important in districts such as St. Paul, where the majority of students are non-white. In addition, transportation planners must think about school concerns, including cost, safety, and convenience.

The implications of school choice also should be considered when assessing such programs as Safe Routes to School. These types of programs may not be effective if a high percentage of neighborhood children attend magnet or charter schools in other neighborhoods.

Ryan Wilson has continued this examination of school travel issues. He created two statistical models of travel behavior using the data set created by Marshall, Krizek, and Elizabeth Wilson, along with a full sample of all elementary-age students in the St. Paul School District. Using these models, he analyzed and quantified the transportation effects of various education policies, such as no school choice and school choice on a lesser geographic scale.

Among his findings: total walking and school bus travel is slightly greater from school than to school. Magnet schools draw from broader geographic regions than neighborhood schools and students are less likely to walk, not because of parents' attitudes toward travel, but simply because they live too far away. School district transportation costs also are greater for magnet schools because more magnet students ride the bus.

This research provides planners with a framework for examining different school choice or transportation policies and evaluating their impact on the school district budget, school choice opportunities, and active transportation.

"School choice matters," Wilson says. "The barriers to the deployment of new transportation technology are real and important. We hope that our work will provide the context needed by researchers who are investigating emerging technologies."

--Nancy Giguere

(Reprinted with the permission of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute.)

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