Colorado officially repealed a sneaky piece of legislation that attempted to crack open transportation between school districts last year. Still, the question of how to lessen barriers between students and a quality education remains to be solved on a case by case basis.
One solution aiming to open up inter-district transportation as a component of school choice was tacked onto the end of another bill last year. The 2018 “Improving Educational Stability For Foster Youth” bill focused on ensuring children in the foster care system had reliable transportation to their schools of origin, should their foster home move them over district lines—and the open inter-district provision in Section 7 stuck out like a sore thumb.
Before signing the bill into law, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper cited “extraneous language” that had no apparent connection to foster children. He also pointed out that Section 7 mirrored a different bill that had been postponed indefinitely the day before.
“We sign HB 18-1306 into law today because its benefit to Colorado foster children cannot be overstated—its enactment is crucial. But our support ends where Section 7 begins,” Hickenlooper wrote. “Should potential Single-Subject Law violations be raised to the Judicial Branch, we expect a court of law will look unfavorably on the language treading beyond HB 18-1306’s title, and rule such extraneous language void.”
When several school districts sued the state last August, arguing this legislative hitchhiker violated the Single-Subject bill provision in the state constitution, the court found in their favor. Senate Bill 19-39 signed by current Gov. Jared Polis on March 8 solidified that decision in law.
“If you want to run an inter-district transportation bill you can, but you can’t call it ‘foster care transportation,’” explained Dr. Jason Glass, superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, a plaintiff in the case.
Under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, transportation is guaranteed for students in the foster care system who are moved outside of their original district.
“Under both federal and state law, children and youth in foster care have the right to remain in their school of origin and counties and school districts are required to agree upon how transportation will be provided, arranged, and funded to the school of origin even if that means crossing district boundaries,” said Kristin Myers, the foster care education coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education. “To be clear, school stability laws for transportation for children and youth in foster care is only to the school of origin. If a child or foster family wanted to choice into a particular school that was not the school of origin for the child, they would have to follow the school district’s policies regarding choice.”
The state points out that the bill as passed by Hickenlooper “provided for better educational outcomes for students in foster care.”
Before the most recent foster care bill, JeffCo transported two students over district lines. This year, it transported 11 children in foster care across district lines, mostly by adding to existing bus routes, but also by contracting American Logistics Company to accommodate one student with special needs.
Still, the separate issue of transporting all students to their school of choice remains to be discussed.
Glass added that the open inter-district transportation legislation in Section 7, which would have allowed any district to pick up any student regardless of location, would have come with unintended consequences.
“In JeffCo, we are a net importer and so, had this bill actually been implemented, we could have sent buses into our adjacent districts and hollowed them out, from a transportation perspective,” Glass pointed out. “We need to really think through the implication because it is a massive policy shift. I’m open to the conversation of what a redesigned transportation system would look like, but you don’t snake it through at the last minute.”
Proponents of open transportation between districts counter-argue that it would create greater equity for students.
“We are trying to address equity in access to transportation,” said Matt Samuelson, a resident lawyer for the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Samuelson testified in opposition to the inter-district transportation repeal before the Senate education committee earlier this year because he said he perceives any opportunity that opens access to transportation as a step forward. In addition to inter-district busing, Samuelson said he wants to see more districts leverage ride-share services and public transportation options.
“If you go back to 1990, the Colorado legislature passed the Public School Choice Act, and that really allowed students and families to chose any public school across district boundaries. They weren’t forced to go to their assigned school,” Samuelson said. “Transportation becomes a piece of this puzzle from an equity perspective because, in reality, school choice without transportation is no choice at all.”
The Open Doors Open Districts analysis of Colorado’s school choice programs released last year estimated that 50,000 students chose schools over and across district lines. The study ultimately recommended that open enrollment systems address “practical barriers to enrollment such as transportation.”
“I think there are conversations that should focus on the students’ difficulties rather than on the adult problems around transportation. I think the adult problems are legitimate, but it mostly comes down to dollars,” Samuelson added.
Others said it’s not the budget lines that make inter-district transportation difficult so much as the manpower.
“I can’t say that funding is it as much as the staffing, just because there are so many shortages everywhere it’s a matter of who’s going to drive this bus,” said Theresa Anderson, who has consulted with school transportation districts for nearly a decade. Anderson previously ran transportation for both JeffCo and Cherry Creek Schools and said both districts collaborated with neighboring districts to get kids to school.
“Even though it was a bill now, I have to say that we’ve actually been cooperatively busing for years,” Anderson observed, adding that districts have regularly collaborated free of charge on scheduling and routing to increase efficiencies. “We never wanted to be a barrier for education, and I think all too often transportation is this barrier.”
Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to reflect that the new law repeals only the inter-district transportation option in Section 7 of existing law passed last year.