SIMMONS: Schools’ latest busing issue

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s yet another nanny-state tie-in that federal lawmakers will consider regarding the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Let’s call it the “vexatious issue of school transportation.”

If you thought the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision spawned racial and class strife, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how conservatives and their Blue Dog brethren handle this tough call.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which President Reagan signed in 1987, is part of the original No Child Left Behind law, which is up for reauthorization. The law mandates that states and localities provide certain educational and social services for homeless families, including transportation to and from their home schools. This issue rises anew as high rates of joblessness and foreclosures (even home abandonment) and shrinking state and local budgets remind us all that families are not yet back on their feet.

So what will Congress and President Obama do?

The always-demanding International Brotherhood of Teamsters is setting the stage for already financially strapped school districts. The union is on the move across the nation, and at the rate it’s organizing school transit workers, let’s see who will move first - the Democrats toward the unions or Republicans toward Reagan policy. Members of the House announced yesterday that hearings to rewrite NCLB will begin next week.

The McKinney-Vento act defines as homeless young people who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate residence.” This includes youths whose families are doing what’s called “doubling up” - that is, living with relatives or friends. The act also says that youths who are not living in their own “fixed” address because of a “loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reason” must be provided transportation to their home school. Not the nearest or best school, but their home school.

There was a time when families in a position to help their relatives did just that. Consider the Great Migration (1910-30), when an estimated 4 million Southern blacks migrated toward jobs in steel mills, factories and other industries in the North and Midwest. Uncle Sam did not await them with open arms, but there were relatives and family acquaintances to help meet their basic needs until they could get on their feet.

McKinney-Vento discourages such helping hands.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters are unionizing school bus workers from New England to the Great Lakes and from the Gateway to the Pacific Coast. Just this week, transit workers for First Student Inc., North America’s largest school bus firm, signed on with the Teamsters.

“The victory is the latest in an effort to organize private school bus and transit workers across the country. Drive Up Standards is a national campaign to improve safety, service and work standards in the private school bus and transit industry. Since the campaign began in 2006, more than 24,700 drivers, monitors, aides, mechanics and attendants have become Teamsters.” So boasted a Teamsters press release on Tuesday (with two thumbs up from Jimmy Hoffa).

Meanwhile, back on Main Street, school authorities and lawmakers are gnashing their teeth over budget woes as the cost for transporting students rise, the number of homeless youths increases and the pot to pay the Teamsters’ piper gets smaller and smaller.

Some examples: Milwaukee public schools had more than 2,700 homeless students in 2008-09, 2,378 the year before and 2,296 in 2006-07. Detroit, which was whacked by the recession and the auto industry, expects 3,894 this school year but only had 2,976 in 2008-09 and 2,326 in 2007-08. Southward, Baltimore had more than 1,300 last school year.

Some lawmakers are trying to think outside the box by eliminating busing programs for 12th-graders. Many 12-graders are driving themselves to and from school or riding with friends who do. In suburban Ohio, Reynoldsburg school officials dropped busing for 12th-graders last school year, while high schoolers in Portland, Ore., have been winging it for nearly two decades.

In and around Grand Junction, Colo., where a $12 million budget could be looming, parents, students and school workers said in a recent survey that budget-cutting plans could include four-day school weeks and charging for busing.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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