School transportation officials in Boston want to give 4,500 middle-school students a taste of independence and recoup millions of dollars at the same time by replacing yellow school buses with MBTA passes. It’s the kind of bold proposal that springs up during tough budget debates. And it’s a good idea on both counts.
By age 12 or 13, the average student in Boston is more than capable of riding a bus or subway without adult supervision. Even a savvy 11-year-old should have no trouble navigating the T. Middle-school students may suffer a reputation for moodiness and surliness. But neither personality trait is a barrier to getting on a subway car. If a sunny attitude were required, then the trains would be empty during rush hour.
It’s tempting to see this plan as part of the growing “Free-Range Kids’’ movement that encourages overbearing parents to lighten up and allow children to rely more on their own wits to get through the day. Perhaps this plan will launch some kids on the path to independence. But Boston’s public schoolchildren aren’t exactly coddled now. Almost 80 percent of them qualify for free or discounted lunch based on family income. And many of them already face more complex daily challenges than jumping on the T.
The goal should be to redirect bus money for use in the classroom. At a Tuesday night budget hearing in Hyde Park, several parents appealed to members of the Boston School Committee for relief from upcoming cuts to the city’s K-8 classrooms. Older students from the evening program of the Adult Learning Center, which provides English lessons and high-school level instruction to about 800 adults, made emotional appeals for help. That program appears doomed next year by the loss of $1.1 million in funding from the school system.
Meanwhile, the Boston Public Schools spends about $100 million annually on transportation, which eats up 10 percent of the system’s operating budget. That’s the highest percentage of any urban school district in the nation, according to BPS chief financial officer Don Kennedy. And it’s not anything to be proud of.
Yellow school buses are wildly expensive when compared to T service. It costs about $1,300 annually to provide each student with a seat on a yellow bus. A weekday T pass at the student rate costs the school system just $225 per student for the entire school year. The per capita savings for seventh- and eighth-graders combined with the ability to consolidate routes, adjust school starting times, and eliminate some buses altogether would lead to $8 million in annual savings, according to school officials. Without such steps, it wouldn’t be possible to add K-1 seats, lengthen the school day, and take other measures to improve public education in Boston.
The union representing Boston’s school bus drivers is likely to resist any proposal that leads to a reduction in their numbers. But few Bostonians are in the mood to sympathize with drivers who conducted a wildcat strike in October, stranding thousands of children across the city.
There is plenty of evidence that middle-school students can switch to the T safely and without an increase in tardiness or truancy. A successful pilot program already provides 1,800 seventh- and eighth-graders and about 200 sixth-graders from about a dozen schools with T passes instead of yellow bus service. And middle-school students at Tech Boston in Dorchester, UP Academy in South Boston, and other demonstration schools are not intrinsically more capable of navigating the transit system than students at other schools. High-school students in Boston already receive T passes to travel to and from school.
Carl Allen, the director of school transportation, spent much of his energy during the past two years addressing the problem of chronically late school buses. But now he wants to focus on reducing costs and ensuring that all schools are getting proper service. That will require syncing the services provided by both the MBTA and the private contractor that oversees the school bus fleet. Allen is especially eager to make sense of the supplemental bus services that are marbled throughout the system. He said that yellow buses currently serve after-school programs and special events at some elementary and middle schools, but not others. The T also runs extra buses along lines that serve some of the district’s high schools, but not others.
“We want to do it on an objective, fair, and uniform basis,’’ said Allen.
And for considerably less than $100 million.