- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

RICHMOND — A new state law will allow local school boards to decide whether to allow private and parochial students to ride on public school buses.

The “share the ride” measure would allow, but not require, public and private schools to enter into busing agreements, said Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, which pushed for the law. It takes effect July 1.

“We thought it would be a good tool for local school districts, especially in congested regions of the state, to reduce traffic and provide more children with a safe form of transportation,” Mr. Caruso said. “This could be a revenue-maker for some school districts and an opportunity for public and nonpublic schools to collaborate if they perceive a win-win situation.”

A national school board group questions whether it is appropriate to use public funds for private students.

“In general, we oppose subsidizing private school tuition and expenses with public tax dollars; this is consistent with that,” said Marc Egan, director of federal affairs at the National School Boards Association.

He added that school boards have legitimate concerns about the feasibility of adding more students to regular bus routes — given the widespread shortage of bus drivers — and about liability issues that might arise.

Mr. Caruso said that opponents “assume that it’s a one-size-fits-all situation. It’s not. It’s specifically written in the bill that the school boards and the nonpublic schools could work out whatever arrangements they wish.”

Twenty-seven other states allow local school divisions to provide transportation to private and parochial students; 20 of those states mandate that transportation be made available to nonpublic students.

In Ohio, public school districts have been required to transport private and parochial students since 1966, when the legislature passed the Fair Bus Law, said Tim Luckhaupt, executive director of the Ohio Catholic Conference.

The law requires local public schools to transport any student who lives at least two miles, but not more than a 30-minute drive, from their schools. At least 130,000 private and Catholic school children in Ohio take advantage of the measure, Mr. Luckhaupt said.

“Parents should know that their children can get to school safely,” he said. “And parents are taxpayers. Even though they send their children to a nonpublic school, they are still taxpayers in that school district and their property taxes go to support the public schools in that district.”

In Virginia, the “share the ride” measure was first introduced nearly 20 years ago, and died annually. It passed narrowly this year, after a steady increase in the number of parents of Catholic school students advocating for the initiative, said Mr. Caruso and the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Mark L. Cole, Spotsylvania Republican.

The Virginia School Boards Association lobbied strongly against the measure, saying the state lacks the money and bus drivers for such agreements. It is urging boards to adopt policies to reject the option.

Frank Barham, executive director of the association, has said such deals would saddle school divisions with extra costs of $5,000 or more per private-school student to pay for drivers, gasoline, insurance and other needs.

Mr. Egan questioned whether “lawmakers [in other states] go from making it permissive to making it a mandate.” He suggested other ways to collaborate on transportation needs, such as public schools selling old buses at below-market prices to private schools.

Arlington County officials were among those who had urged Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, to veto the measure, school board Chairman Libby Garvey said.

“We’re just going to ignore it,” she said.

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