What role does transportation play in charter school inequity? A lot, argues one charter

By: - March 21, 2022 5:00 am

Nevada Prep, a charter school in east Las Vegas, offers daily transportation for students. More than half of students take the bus. (Photo: April Corbin Girnus)

When David Blodgett and other founders of Nevada Prep began recruiting prospective students to their charter school, they didn’t know where exactly their physical building would be, but they made parents a promise: We will get your kids there.

The charter school, which enrolls students in kindergarten through eighth grade, decided early on that it would tackle what the majority of its industry peers have not: offering daily transportation to students who don’t live within walking distance of campus. Big yellow school buses are a staple of every public school district in the state. Within the Clark County School District, for example, four out of every 10 students ride a school bus. But the default for state-authorized charter schools is a waiver from those responsibilities.

The justification is that charter schools do not receive any additional funding for transportation. School districts do.

But as state policymakers and charter regulators begin to address the fact that charter schools as a whole are whiter and more affluent than the school districts they siphon students from, increasing attention is being paid to the role of transportation in creating those inequities. At the same time, the state is revamping its K-12 funding formula, which may pave the way for more opportunities for — and perhaps create higher expectations of — charter schools.

“If you’re not providing transportation, it’s unfair to say you are serving all kids,” says Principal Blodgett. “You are limiting yourself to the families who have the means to get to school. … It’s structural, systemic. You’re guaranteed to have more affluent students.”

Proposed charter schools must identify a “transportation plan” as part of their application to the State Public Charter School Authority, but that component is rarely given the same level of scrutiny as other factors — such as what education management organization the school plans on contracting with.

“I think there are a lot of charter schools that wish they could offer transportation,” said Blodgett, “and I think there are a lot of charter schools who are relieved they don’t have to.”

A map showing Nevada Prep’s bus stops. Marker sizes represent relative popularity of bus stops. (Map by Nevada Prep)

Most charter schools are not expected to do what Nevada Prep did: Buy two decommissioned CCSD buses for $6,000 a piece and hire a parent to be a bus driver that doubles as a food service worker between the morning and afternoon routes. There is no expectation for a charter school to map out the addresses of every student and figure out optimal bus stop locations and routes, or to contract “a bus guy” to keep on speed dial for the perpetual maintenance issues that arise from using buses with approximately 200,000 miles of wear and tear on them.

Outsiders sometimes describe Nevada Prep’s transportation program as robust — and it no doubt is compared to charter schools who offer no daily transportation. Still, Blodgett finds the term amusing. He is more likely to use a term like scrappy or shoestring to describe their operations.

The school launched with one bus during its inaugural year in 2018 and added a second bus the following year. Both yellow buses have “NV Prep Charter School” emblazoned on the side, though right above that you can still see the faded words “County School District” that harken its previous life.

Both buses begin picking up students at 6:25 a.m. each morning and arrive on campus around 7:40 a.m. In the afternoon, both buses depart at 3:35 p.m., with the last students dropped off at 5 p.m.

Nevada Prep is planning on purchasing two additional buses for use next year, in part because they want to reduce the commute time for students.

Blodgett adds that when other charter school leaders hear the nitty gritty of what they have done to set up and offer transportation “that’s usually where the conversation ends.”

The $12,000 in capital costs to buy the buses initially is dwarfed by the cost of employing a driver, maintaining the vehicle, and buying fuel. Then there are the unexpected emergencies, such as when a bus driver was out for three weeks with covid and the school was forced on less than a weekend’s notice to contract out their bus service to rented charter buses in order to get the kids to school.

“It’s a dumb thing to do for your bottom line,” says Blodgett. “It makes zero financial sense. It’s hard to justify it based on cost. But from a moral, ethical or equity perspective it makes sense.”

Around 150 of Nevada Prep’s 250-odd students currently ride the bus. Others are on a waiting list, finding alternative means of transportation until they can get approved for a seat. Blodgett is confident many of the bus riders wouldn’t be enrolled at their school if the bus wasn’t available.

As anecdotal proof, he points to the first few weeks of the charter school’s first year. The buses were still in the process of being approved by state regulators, so parents were on their own and the school had to beg parents to trust that they would not back out on their promise of bright yellow school buses.

“Parents were carpooling, selling their stuff to afford gas,” said Blodgett, adding that parents were checking in daily to see when the buses would be ready.

Nevada Prep is classified as 100% free and reduced lunch eligible. FRL eligibility is the default measure for analyzing economic stability of students’ families. The charter school also enrolls significantly higher percentages of Hispanic and Black students than both the Charter School Authority and the state overall, according to demographic data collected by the state.

Those parents were willing to make sacrifices in the short term, but it wouldn’t have been sustainable for them long term. As he put it to the Charter School Board during a recent presentation, “When transportation is a barrier, school choice is privilege, not a right.”

The cost of transportation

Transporting students to and from school every day is expensive. There’s no way around it.

More than $171.8 million in K-12 transportation expenditures were reported to the Nevada Department of Education in 2018-19, which was the last academic year not affected by the pandemic. Not surprisingly, most of that amount — $123 million — was spent by Clark County School District, the fifth largest school district in the country and by far the largest in Nevada.

That year CCSD transported 133,266 students across 1,435 different bus routes for more than 23.4 million miles, resulting in a per student cost of $923.

But, as is often the case in education, those resources are not distributed equally.

CCSD reported that $59.8 million of that $123 million was spent transporting 120,262 “regular education” students and $35.9 million was spent transporting 12,691 “special education” and pre-kindergarten students.

That works out to costs of $497 per regular student and $2,827 per special education or pre-k student.

Nevada’s other urban district, Washoe County School District, reported a similar disparity. Its expenditures worked out to $883 per regular student and $4,093 per special education/pre-k student, for an overall per student cost of $1,379.

While state law prohibits charter schools from discriminating, including against children with disabilities, many schools do not offer the specialized resources needed for students with certain kinds of individualized education plans (IEPs). That issue extends into transportation.

Some special education students receive curb-to-curb transportation service via adapted buses. Others are being transported not to their closest school but to a different school better suited for their needs. Both drive up the per pupil cost. These students receive transportation accommodations as part of their  IEPs, which public school districts must adhere to because they are part of federal laws protecting students with disabilities.

Blodgett says one of the two buses Nevada Prep plans on buying for next school year will be an adapted vehicle able to accommodate a student with a mobility disability.

Looking beyond the urban districts, transportation costs generally rise on a per-student basis. Rural school districts by their nature have higher costs because there are fewer students and longer distances to travel.

Transportation costs ranged from $1,003 per student in Lyon County School District to $4,017 per student in Pershing County School District. Most rural school districts did not break down their transportation expenditures by type of student.

The 2018-19 NDOE transportation report also includes data from one private school -- Yeshiva Day School of Las Vegas. The private school reported $40,000 in transportation expenditures, which covered two buses transporting 55 students, resulting in a per-student cost of $727.

Future fixes

As part of transitioning the state to a modernized K-12 funding formula, the Commission on School Funding has been discussing the issue of transportation, not just for charter schools but for all public schools.

Transportation is currently funded on a partial reimbursement basis that takes into account actual expenditures and a running average of recent years. Conversations are ongoing, commission member Dusty Casey emphasized in an interview with the Current, but the commission could opt to recommend keeping a similar system within the new funding formula. They could also recommend transitioning to a budget-based system wherein there is a predetermined formula and each school district or charter school gets what they get based on that.

Either way, the commission has already unanimously voted to recommend to the Legislature that charter schools receive transportation and food services funding, which they group together and refer to as auxiliary funding.

“That is good news because I do think it’s an equity issue,” said Casey, who is also the chief financial officer of Oasis Academy, a charter school in Fallon that contracts buses for extracurricular activities but does not offer daily transportation for students. “Now we’re just trying to figure out how it looks and how it’s calculated.”

For example, if school districts receive funding equivalent to the average of their last four years of expenditures, what should a new charter school or a charter school with no history of providing transportation receive? Should transportation funding for charters be on an application basis since so few charter schools are attempting daily transport of students?

Beyond operational costs, the commission is also looking at the capital costs of buying new school buses -- something Casey says the state has historically overlooked. Like Nevada Prep -- where the buses were made in 2003 and 2004 -- rural school districts often buy used school buses from CCSD.

The oldest school buses in the state, according to the NDE annual transportation report, are more than two decades old. A quarter of Carson City School District’s 47-vehicle fleet were made between 1989 and 1999, as were 40% of White Pine County School District’s fleet of 30.

The oldest buses in CCSD’s fleet of 1,824 were made between 2000 and 2005. But those buses make up only 4% of the total fleet.

“That’s where we’re considering discussing more of a budgetary process,” added Casey, “so the state can understand that this district needs to buy X amount of buses, this charter needs to buy X amount of buses, and so on. We’ll have to see how the commission filters through that.”

Blodgett from Nevada Prep hasn’t been involved in those Commission on School Funding discussions, but he is hopeful that pressure to address transportation within charter schools will increase at the state level. He told the Charter School Board in a recent presentation that, while he knows that board is a regulator and not an advocacy organization, he wishes they could do more to bring attention to the issue. He added that he and his colleagues have spoken to legislators in the past but have largely felt like they are seen as the “weird transportation people.”

The recommendations made by the 11-member appointed school funding commission will be given to the Legislature before the next regular session in 2023 for possible adoption.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.