By: Kristin Jordan, Florida Equality of Opportunity Initiative
Every day, 480,000 school buses transport nearly 26 million students to and from school nationwide. This amount is more than twice the size of all other forms of mass transportation combined – including bus, rail, and airline transportation. To fully experience the benefits of the public education system, students must get to school safely, on time, and be ready to learn. With this in mind, transportation is essential to the success of school systems, student educational attainment, and overall student well-being.
Urban transportation can significantly impact the quality of experiences that shape the developing brain. For many students across America, limited access to public transportation is a barrier to better education. With the growth of school choice and the expansion of students attending schools outside their historic residential zone, more families are faced with a new set of problems, primarily the costs incurred by students for travel. Finding safe, reliable transportation to and from school remains an obstacle for families who want a better option for their children than what is nearest to their homes. Student travel matters for many reasons granted that it could have adverse effects on students’ health, safety, and academic outcomes. For high-quality schools to be feasible options for all prospective students, families must be able to get their children there. In other words, the financial and nonfinancial (e.g. time and stress) costs of student travel must be outweighed by the benefit of attending higher-quality schools.
While families are willing to travel in pursuit of better academic results, many are simply unable to manage the logistics of travel. Schools considered “higher-quality” are often located in high-income areas. Across metro regions, increases in school quality are associated with an increase in average home prices in the school’s zip code.  Some parents may need more assistance transporting their children to a better-quality school outside of their residential communities. Access to a personal vehicle is not a luxury all households have, yet it can significantly increase the number of schools available to a family. To view these disparities in access to vehicles in the household, one need only visit the Florida Gap Map to view transportation options for households in each of Florida’s 983 zip codes. In nearly every grade, students have access to 10 or more schools within a 15-minute drive, but typically have access to fewer than 10 schools when traveling the same amount of time on public transit.
The link between limited school transportation, decreased school choice, and academic attainment is not purely coincidental. Many cities such as Tallahassee, FL have public transportation systems that, in theory, could help connect students to their desired schools. The transit systems, however, are designed with the growing workforce in mind, not students in residential neighborhoods. Furthermore, public systems cannot always connect students from low-income households to the city’s highest-performing schools, which tend to be concentrated in affluent neighborhoods. When lack of transportation equates to an unequal dispersion of education, it has the potential to become a source of both economic and educational inequality.
The relationship between transportation and access to quality schooling is increasingly evident. Transportation policies and school-based decisions concerning transportation must take into consideration the external factors that affect school choice. Travel time, distance to school, safety en route to school, and transportation costs are all strong determinants of where a child ultimately receives their education. An investment in higher-quality education will also require an investment in transportation. Providing students with the means to reach their desired schools is a strategy for state and local governments to boost educational achievement and prepare students to enter a diverse global economy. Children should be granted the opportunity to thrive and prosper without worrying about obstacles they have no control over.