Education in America: Unforeseen Costs of Vouchers and Charters

I’m back after taking last week off, and today we’re going to play with hypotheticals. The news has been dominated recently with stories of mass teacher layoffs and terminations, including pink-slipping 5000+ teachers in Detroit; 1,500 in Broward County, FL; thousands in Texas; thousands in California; and thousands in New York City.

The comments sections of the above articles are, as you might expect, filled with the usual rhetoric about how all the lazy unionized teachers need to be replaced, claims that public education is the equivalent of teaching our children to be communist/socialist/fascist/hippie Hitlers with abortion indoctrination and, of course, the rally cry that charter schools and private school vouchers are THE ONE RING THAT BINDS THEM ALL.

I’m planning a longer piece on the pros and cons of the school choice model, and there are admittedly plenty of bullet points in each column, but today we’re going to talk about something I haven’t seen anyone else mention:

The cost of transportation.

Transportation is a substantial part of any district’s budget, especially with rising gas prices. Do some guess-math in your head to predict how much gasoline your local public school district goes through in a week to keep its fleet of school buses on the road. I’ll wait.

In the biggest district in my city, Indianapolis Public Schools, they budgeted $31 million in 2010 to keep the buses going, which does not include replacement costs for retired buses. School buses, as you might imagine, are neither cheap to purchase/maintain nor possess good gas mileage.

Indianapolis Public Schools covers a substantial chunk of the Indianapolis metro area, including all of the city inside our interstate loop and a few miles into the suburbs outside the loop in each direction. Indianapolis is a physically big city, at 373.1 square miles. Now, let’s say IPS disbanded and was replaced with charter schools and voucher programs that cover the same geographic area. Currently, IPS offers parents the choice of several specialized magnet schools at both the elementary, middle, and high school levels, which has been incredibly beneficial to IPS as a whole, but these schools have also increased transportation costs substantially. Which, of course it did; transporting kids to close neighborhood schools is always going to be cheaper, and neighborhood schools allow some students to walk or ride a bike to school. (It’s unclear if this is uphill both ways in a snowstorm, footnote to Dad.)

Lets say we have a charter school in the northwest quadrant of the city that specializes in math, science, and engineering prep. Students from all over the city are going to want to attend this school, and it will be up to the charter to figure out a way to efficiently (both in terms of cost and time) pick up and drop off all of those students from all over the city. A small charter won’t be able to do it, and if charters don’t provide transportation, many families (for whatever reason) will not be able to utilize them.

Private schools don’t typically provide transportation, which will make a voucher essentially worthless to a parent who is not free or able to transport their children to and from school every day. In Indianapolis, that’s going to mean a lot of families won’t be able to avail themselves of the supposedly superior education a private school provides. Most private schools are also strapped for cash (especially the parochial schools), and it’s unreasonable to expect they can add an expenditure as large as student transportation to their already slim budgets.

While I’m 110% sure the transportation problem would be greeted with comments of UNION SOCIALIST BABY-KILLER, it’s a point worth considering for those who are pro-voucher or pro-charter strictly because they’re cheaper options than public schools. Interestingly enough, I bet those same people have no issue with the $80 billion dollars worth of F-22 Raptor fighter jets that have never been flown in combat and are currently grounded indefinitely.

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