School Bus Commute

90-Minute Bus Ride for a Good Education

Last week, I came across the Mark Twain Prize special for Julia Louis-Dreyfus airing on PBS. It was a pretty funny broadcast for a well-deserving actress. But what aired afterward on Channel 11 drew me in even more: ’63 Boycott.

’63 Boycott is a short documentary about the 1963 boycott of Chicago Public Schools, in which 250,000 students and advocates marched in protest of CPS’ strategic segregation of schools and lack of adequate facilities at nonwhite schools. The documentary goes beyond the 1963 boycott and covers years immediately afterward, as well.

I had never heard about the boycott until I saw this documentary. In a way, it revealed that some things never change; at the end, the documentary jumps ahead a few decades to 2013 and footage from a new march against CPS, protesting the dozens of school closures in predominantly nonwhite residential areas. From this footage, they briefly featured a student who lived on the south side but attended Lane Tech, an outstanding selective-enrollment school on the north side.

She said: “Why should it take me an hour and a half on the bus just to get a good education?”

CPS Commute Times

The airing of this documentary actually coincided with an article I recently saw in the Chicago Sun-Times. The article looks at the 2018-19 Chicago Public Schools Annual Regional Analysis, which is a fascinating, simplistic look at the educational demographics of Chicago Public Schools, and it takes this analysis and focuses specifically on a new data point: student commute times to school. Of little surprise to me, the students with the worse commutes reside on the south side. Some of it is a matter of geography, as students who live closer to the city center tend of have shorter commutes, according to the analysis. The Sun-Times article noted that about 80% of all students can get to school in 15 minutes or less, and that fewer than 10% of high school students have commutes of over an hour. This is good to see as it indicates a small sum of students have a long trip every day.

But still, the disparity of commute times is evident, particularly with this statement that I feel I’ve seen or heard before:

“Those ‘really significant’ commute times are concentrated in South Side neighborhoods, as well as the Far Southwest Side — often, in areas underserved by mass transit, past the southernmost stops of the CTA Red and Orange lines.”

In a past article, I told a quick story of a previous nanny of mine who had an hour-long commute from the far south side to the north side. Her main reason for this commute was to drive her daughter to school (hence why she sought employment on the north side) because of the inefficient transportation options where she lived and a dearth of high-quality schools close to her compared with what is available on the north side. Of course, it’s no secret that the CPS school closings in 2013 broadly impacted the south and west sides.

In addition to my nanny, I’ve worked with people who drive their kids across the city daily to attend a “better” school. And time after time I have seen CPS students on the L or bus wearing a sweatshirt or hat with their high school’s name on it, yet we were nowhere near that school (i.e. the students were making a long commute to or from school). Another family I know has the benefit of a school bus as they live within the one-and-a-half to six-mile zone that CPS allows for daily busing at many of its schools, though in spite of that benefit, it’s still a half hour on the bus for elementary school kids.

Many other students, unfortunately, don’t have the benefit of the school bus, and instead have to rely on other transportation means, mainly public transit. It’s well-known that students with subpar neighborhood schools are making the long commutes to where they can get a better education, thus depleting enrollment in their home neighborhoods.

Although there is a fairly equal spread of Level 1+ and 1 schools throughout the city, the fact that these high-performing schools also include charter schools, specialty schools, or schools with rigid enrollment policies, it’s not so simple that a student living a few blocks from one of these schools is able to attend it. Aside from long distances and lack of reliable and proximate transit options, relying on public transit in Chicago also can be a significant cost burden.

New York, Suburbs, and Catholic Schools

Chicago isn’t alone here. In New York, where there is also an extensive public school choice program, students also have lengthy commutes. In a recent analysis* on student commutes in the Big Apple, The Urban Institute reported that high school students generally have an average commute of at least 30 minutes and that “at all levels black students travel significantly farther to school than students from other racial or ethnic backgrounds.” Like in Chicago, New York high school students who live on the periphery generally have longer commutes than those who reside in more central locations. Also notable from the report, and similar to Chicago, “not all proximate schools are high-quality choices,” hence why kids are taking long treks to school (and the crux of the aforementioned quote from the Lane Tech student).

With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder that certain students get frustrated when they can’t just walk to school, or at least have a simple commute. I can only imagine the two- or three-bus/train transfer over 60-90 minutes that supercommuting CPS students go through.

Growing up, I went to my cozy suburban high school that was less than four miles from my house. I lived on the other side of town from my school, so I had a whopping 10- to 15-minute commute by car due to “traffic”; all of my friends had even shorter commutes. Still, the process to go to school was so simple, as it is for the majority of geographic America: Live in town; go to school in that town. For baseball, a couple of times a year, we would play home games versus various CPS schools. With the exception of one time, these were always home games at our suburban school. While I didn’t mind not having to be on a school bus for a long time going to and from the city, I also wondered why our team never had to do that commute. On the other side of things, these players were coming out some distance to the burbs to play a two-hour game, then take their bus an hour back to their school, and then possibly have another long commute to their homes.

Taking it out of the public school realm for a minute, my mom taught at a Catholic high school that attracted people from all over the city and suburbs, and she often told me about the lengthy commutes some of her students had. This often made me question why didn’t these kids go to a Catholic school closer to their homes, but certainly each school has its own attributes and reasons for students to attend. At the time, I assumed the longer travel time to school was just an intangible that students had to deal with to get a Catholic education.

But Catholic schools are private. Chicago Public Schools … well, are public. Why should someone have to commute an hour just to attend a school in their same public school district? It’s not like Chicago is the largest city by geographic size in the country, with schools all spread out by miles, necessitating a lengthy commute. It’s not even in the top 30.

Are There Solutions?

What’s the solution to fix this? School funding, of course, is always an issue. An analysis from EdBuild, an organization that focuses on disparities in school funding, found that predominately nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less funding than predominately white districts. At a national level, nonwhite districts receive $2,226 less per student than white districts. What I found interesting is that in Illinois, nonwhite districts generally receive more funding than white districts, regardless of poverty level.  When looking at New York, it’s a different picture, as white districts receive a couple of thousand dollars more than nonwhite districts. The report notes that New York’s increased funding to rural areas worsens the inequity issue.

While the EdBuild study focuses on funding at the state level, it still infers disparities that affect the city level. Illinois recently revamped its school-funding model to help districts most in need. However, if a number of nationally ranked schools reside in the same district as a number of underperforming schools that neighborhood students don’t want to attend, that seems to be a problem. Aside from tax revenue, CPS benefits from other sources, such as grants, the Chicago Public Education Fund, and local community groups, but all is not equal as the level of financial resources often depend on the school. (School funding policy –  and education policy, in general – is another monster I have yet to tackle. Perhaps in a future article.)

That said, with equal financial resources across the city, CPS students may not have to make these arduous transit commutes each day because in theory, all schools would be of similar quality.

A benefit of the open enrollment policy across many CPS schools is that students will learn alongside others from neighborhoods they never would’ve visited, and it makes the school system less siloed. But those students who travel from farther away are already starting behind each day because they have to wake up earlier, commute farther, pay attention in class on less sleep, perform any extracirriculars at a high level, commute farther back home, get home later, go to bed later, only to do it all over again the next day.

Aside from school funding, transportation improvements could be made to better serve students (and workers) making these horizontal and lateral commutes. Although it’s not perfect, the CTA has done a fairly good job modernizing its rail infrastructure, but commuters would benefit even more if major Chicago streets had dedicated bus lanes (not just the Loop) to speed up overall service. Metra could also potentially serve as a more reliable option in certain parts of the city, though Metra officials have made clear that serving suburban riders is their priority, and the CrossRail Chicago project needs much more political buy-in before rolling down the tracks. (Like school funding, transportation funding is another behemoth I need to research more.)

With Chicago getting a new mayor and city council in May, it will be interesting to see how the funding questions play out. Lori Lightfoot is a proponent for equitable transportation, which is good for people currently facing a lot of time riding transit each day. However, given that it can take policymakers months (or even years) to agree to any kind of funding changes – and other proposals, such as a public referendum, might face an uphill battle in convincing the people to vote on what could be a tax increase – I think students currently making the long-distance commutes are stuck with them for the foreseeable future.


* The Urban Institute report’s assumes students use public transit or walk, and “do not have access to a faster mode of transportation.” In a way that reinforces the belief that public transit is not fast, whereas in reality, rail infrastructure has aged, train/bus frequencies need improvement, and streets are poorly designed forcing buses to get stuck in traffic caused by thousands of single cars, many whose drivers choose to drive because transit is “slow.”

Photo credit: Pixabay

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