The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

District children lose the buses that took them to high-performing schools

school bus (istock)

When Savoy Harris was looking for a new school for his twin son and daughter, he did not want to send them to the struggling school near his home in Southeast Washington. But he heard about a federal program that gave children assigned to failing neighborhood schools the right to transfer to higher-performing schools and a ride to school.

Harris filled out a form and requested Key Elementary, a school he used to pass as a mail carrier in Palisades, a prosperous Northwest neighborhood near the Potomac River. His request was approved, and for the past six years, a chartered bus has been transporting his children on the nearly 10-mile route across town to Key — and this past year to Hardy Middle School near Glover Park.

But starting Monday — on the first day of the new school year — the twins must get their own ride or make their way on public transportation as many D.C. students do because the charter bus program was canceled.

Harris feels stuck. He said he does not think it is safe for his 12-year-olds to ride the bus or Metro by themselves, and he does not want to bring them back to a neighborhood school. “If I am going to a top-notch school, why would I go back to a school that’s not performing?” he said.

Although a majority of families take advantage of school choice in the District by applying for schools outside their neighborhood through an enrollment lottery, transportation typically is not provided. Public and most charter schools in the District provide bus service only for special-education students. Students are eligible for free city bus passes, and as of this school year, free commutes on the Metrorail.

D.C. students will be riding Metro for free this year

For many years, however, a little-known provision of the No Child Left Behind law required that students assigned to failing schools have the chance to transfer to higher- performing schools — and it required school districts to help with transportation.

Few people took advantage of it. Nearly 30,000 students were eligible in the 2007-2008 school year, but only 225 applied and received a placement, school officials said.

The school choice provision expired in July 2012, when the school system got a waiver from the mandates of the federal law, but D.C. Public Schools continued to offer transportation to the 164 students taking part.

Since then, the number of participants has dwindled to 33 original riders and 10 siblings in the 2014 -2015 school year, officials said.

In light of budget reductions, school system officials decided to eliminate busing starting this fall. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson wrote a letter to participating families last December saying that the District could no longer justify the cost. She directed families to public transportation and the school lottery if they wanted to change schools.

Commute distances vary widely for children in the District. Most traditional school students, and about 10 percent of charter students, travel less than a mile to school.

Read more about commuting distances for charter schools and traditional schools in the District

Hardy Middle School, with mostly out-of-boundary students, has the longest travel distance of any traditional public school in the District, according to data released this past spring. Students commute a median distance of 5.3 miles to get there.

Tiffany Fuller, a 911 dispatcher who lives near Fort Lincoln by the Prince George's County line, enrolled her daughter in Horace Mann Elementary near American University a few years ago through the enrollment lottery. She was driving her child to school before she found out about the white bus that pulled up to the school each day carrying other out-of-boundary students. She had not heard about the federal program, butasked around, found her daughter was eligible and signed her up.

Last year, when her daughter enrolled at Hardy Middle School, she took a chartered bus there, too.

But this year, relying on public transportation will require riding a bus, train and another bus, a lengthy commute that Fuller said is too much for a young person.

“They have had this bus service for all these years,” she said. “It’s like they are throwing our children out there in the city right now.”