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How are cities helping kids get to school?

Last Friday, the JHU Institute for Education Policy (IEP) released a commentary hypothesizing that “complicated, costly, and time-consuming school commutes” may have negative implications for student attendance and achievement. The issue of transportation is especially relevant in districts that have adopted school-choice policies, which can vary from allowing students to attend public schools outside of their district; charter and magnet schools within district; and vouchers. A recent Urban Institute study highlighted the complex reality that families have uneven access to high-quality schooling options – and that absent effective transportation systems, choice is empty.

Research on this subject is limited, but available evidence suggests that City leaders can provide an important forum for collaboration between school networks, transportation providers, parents, and community organizations. Below are highlights from the report accompanied by GovEx’s recommendations on how cities can use community engagement and outcome budgeting to move the dial on transportation and schooling.

Denver

The IEP report describes Denver’s success in engaging key constituents to fill transportation gaps. This success may be attributed to the City’s ability to convene multiple actors around specific, shared goals, and to take advantage of existing City coalitions. For instance, Commute DPS is a collaboration between the City of Denver, Denver Public Health, and Denver Safe Routes to School Coalition, which partners with the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Together, these partners run the Schoolpool program, which connects individual families with one another to share responsibility for community transportation.

The level of coordination that we see in Denver requires strong leadership and buy-in from the community, which can take years to build. While there is no perfect solution, one that maximizes flexibility and participation is most likely to succeed.

GovEx encourages the type of coordination that encompasses the Mayor’s office, school district, and transportation authority, as well as parents and students. With this coordination, cities can begin to build more sustainable solutions. For instance, the DPS Community Planning and Advisory Committee, comprised of 75 community members from across Denver, campaigned for and won $400,000 in the FY 2017-18 budget to support low-income high school students’ transportation needs. This initiative was part of a record year for school tax measures statewide; the $628 million ask was the largest in Colorado.

Recommendation 1: Engage and connect partners inside and outside of City government

  • To make real change, City leaders should identify individuals and groups which are responsible for, and affected by, these issues, such as elected officials, transportation and education officials, parents, students, teachers, and advocates
  • Find existing coalitions with similar or related interests, or form your own
  • Remember that the voices of parents and students are as critical as those of transportation and education officials
  • Be sure that the goal of your coalition is clear, whether it’s designing an alternative solution for families to get their kids to school, or building support for a more sustainable solution through policy change or budgeting
  • Ensure that all parties have access to all relevant information
  • Design the appropriate collaboration according to your audience and their interests and capacity

Baltimore

In Baltimore City, which is discussed in the report as having under-developed rail systems and inconsistent bus service, students in low-income neighborhoods may face barriers to attending higher quality schools. Baltimore has an opportunity to address these challenges through its Outcome Budgeting process.

This year’s budget prioritizes education as well as transportation, touting the $350 million in direct support for City Schools and $150 million invested for children and youth beyond direct support for schools, including after-school programs, maternal and child health, libraries, etc. Under the Thriving Youth & Families priority, the Fiscal 2018 Preliminary Budget includes $90.2 million to Baltimore City Public Schools over three years. Through the Sustainable Infrastructure priority, the City will invest $794 million in its operating budget, which includes repaving 120 lane miles and in maintaining the current levels of service for the Charm City Circulator.

Recommendation 2: Take advantage of the budget process to discuss issues in a holistic way

  • Create priority statements based on what you hope to achieve. Priority statements can help coalesce programs and funding streams that affect children’s educational outcomes
  • Develop indicators to measure progress of the goals
  • Establish a clear process for the budget office as well as for the departments that will submit budget requests

To review these and other case studies on transportation challenges and city solutions, read the full commentary here.