Public schools in New Orleans have long struggled with providing quality public transportation for its students, a problem that has been particularly exacerbated by the advent of a decentralized public school system—a system in which charter management organizations (CMOs) primarily exist as their own school districts that are solely responsible for providing resources to serve their students.
New Orleans is the first major U.S. city to have an all-charter school district system. And as we’ve seen, the fundamental rub with the complete decentralizing of urban public school systems – including public school services such as school busing systems – is that decentralization inevitably leads to privatization. The privatization of public services, in a trying to “place a square peg into a round hole” affect, makes such services more prone to not being accessible to, or of less quality for, its recipients. For children attending public schools in New Orleans who rely upon public transportation to go to school, the privatization of New Orleans public schools has created barriers to accessing free and safe yellow school bus transportation, and therefore, access to education altogether.
In a centralized public school system, like that of a traditional public school system, there is a school district, and the district itself, or what many of us may remember from our K-12 days as the “central office,” is ultimately responsible for ensuring that schools within it comply with all laws. Federal and state per pupil funding is received by the central school district, and with these funds, the district directly provides resources to students attending its schools, such as a school bus fleet, bus chaperones to ensure the safety of students during transit to and from school, and bus drivers.
In New Orleans, on the other hand, most CMOs are their own individual school districts, or local education agencies (LEAs). As such, each CMO provides resources to its schools to support day to day operations, and each CMO is ultimately responsible for ensuring that schools within it comply with local, state, and federal laws. What once was a “central office” under a traditional public school model, the newly re-branded NOLA Public Schools – which, in large part, serves the role of authorizer of charter schools – is hands off in regulating school operations, and is not responsible for providing resources to CMOs to serve students.
What happens, then, in a decentralized school model, when CMOs lack the resources to provide services for schools? Well…
- In August 2013, the Lens reported that elementary-aged students were having to catch the school bus before 6 a.m., in order to arrive at school on time, resulting in children not receiving the adequate amount of hours of sleep to function throughout the day. At that time, the process of decentralizing New Orleans schools had begun, and Orleans Parish School Board, the Recovery School District, and independent charter schools each and separately contracted with private bus companies to provide yellow school busing for students.
- In February 2014, the Lens reported that many students in New Orleans were exposed to dangerous conditions waiting to catch school buses, as bus stops were located at the city’s busiest thoroughfares – an issue that then New Orleans City Councilmember LaToya Cantrell cited as a consequence of the city’s decentralized school system. That same month in New Orleans, a 6 year old boy was hit by a car and killed and his sister injured while crossing a street to his bus stop. One day later, another child was struck by a car and injured while getting off a school bus operated by the same bus company as the fatal accident that occurred the day prior.
- In December 2017, the issue of early school bus pick up times resurfaced, prompting the Orleans Parish School Board to study transportation routes.
- In April 2019, the Louisiana Department of Insurance accused a private school bus company based in New Orleans of submitting falsified records as proof of insurance to schools. A few months later, in September, an investigation by the city revealed that over 80% of school buses had not yet passed the city’s newly implemented safety inspection. That month, a driver of a school bus from a private bus company was accused by a CMO of getting into an accident and leaving the children at the scene. Then, last month, nine students attending James Singleton Charter School were injured in a school bus accident.
What happens is the same consequence that occurs when any individualized, privately operated entity lacks resources— corners are cut and accountability is diminished, creating a fertile ground for ongoing abuses.
Yes, busing presents contractual issues between CMOs and private school bus companies, and between CMOs and their authorizers – who condition renewal of charters in part on the CMO’s ability to provide free and adequate transportation to the students it serves. However, viewing busing issues solely from a market-based approach does a huge disservice to any efforts to address them. At its core, public school busing is a civil rights issue. Implicit within the obligation to provide a public education to all students is the obligation to provide accessible transportation to and from school, for children who require it. When understood as a civil rights issue, the need for a centralized busing system is an apparent and obvious remedy to the city’s public school busing crisis.
In a public school system where access to quality, yellow school bus transportation is not a guarantee as envisioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in landmark school desegregation and busing cases, but is instead a high-stakes crapshoot based on whether the school a child attends has the funding for and legal obligation to provide school bus transportation, any suggestion that that system is one of choices for families is at its best disingenuous and depending on who you ask, deceitful.
Victor Jones is the Senior Supervising Attorney for Children’s Rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans, where he, through litigation, public policy, and public education, leads SPLC in fighting the school-to-prison pipeline, fighting for education equity, and protecting children’s access to mental health services for Louisiana’s most vulnerable youth populations.