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opinion | jennifer graham

A school bus is not a billboard

In conversation recently with an educator in the South, I asked if parents there pay to have a school bus take their kids to school. “No way — not at public schools,” he replied, incredulous that I’d ask such a silly question.

But for parents in many Massachusetts towns, writing a check for school-bus transportation is as routine as hauling your own leaves to the dump (another service offered for free in other towns and elsewhere in the country).

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The Boston school system provides free transportation, including MBTA fare for high-school students and some middle-schoolers. But in the suburbs, there’s often a bill. In Newton, a bus pass costs $310 per child; it’s $300 in Andover, $250 in Shrewsbury — a costly convenience for families hobbled by the other costs of “free” public education, such as classroom supplies, field trips, instrument rentals, fund-raisers, and teacher gifts. (Under Massachusetts law, students in kindergarten through sixth grade who live more than 2 miles from their school do not have to pay. Bus fees apply to middle-school and high-school students, as well as elementary students who live within 2 miles of the school.)

But as painful as those bus fees may be, it could be worse: We could be writing checks so that our children can climb on school buses papered with ads.

Since 2003, bus advertising has been legal in Massachusetts, as in eight other states. Although most efforts to change state laws to allow bus advertising fail, there are always new states in pursuit of those dollars; New York, Indiana, South Carolina, and Georgia are the latest to consider enabling measures. “Since the economic downturn, this comes up somewhere every year,” Josh Golin, associate director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told me.

School buses themselves are uniform across the country, with their color and safety features dictated by federal law. But it’s up to the nation’s 14,000-odd school districts to figure out how to pay for the buses, the drivers, and the gas, which is why parents in Hopkinton pay a bus fee, but not those in Weston or Worcester.

Yet most, if not all, school buses in Massachusetts are gloriously ad-free, which is a testament both to liberty and to good sense, and a rare rebuttal to our reputation as a nanny state. For more than a decade, our districts have had the freedom to sell out, but most wisely choose not to use it. (Others, including Braintree and Medford, tried school bus ads but then discontinued them.)

Most school buses in Massachusetts are gloriously ad-free, which is a testament both to liberty and to good sense.

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Indiana is hoping to take in $1,000 per bus in a pilot program in three school districts. If Shrewsbury did the same, that would cover the bus fees for a whopping four families, while incurring much greater — if less quantifiable — costs.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services denounced bus ads in 2011 for safety reasons. “Advertising, if it’s effective, draws attention to the ads” and away from disembarking children, John Hennessey, Worcester’s transportation director and past president of the Massachusetts Association of Pupil Transportation, told me.

Beyond that, there’s the ick factor, the intangible oiliness of schools hawking products to kindergartners in pigtails. Even if the buses are operated by outside firms and the ads are sold by agencies, there will be the perception because yellow buses are emblems of the schools they serve and ads may be perceived as endorsements.

Plus, when she waves goodbye to me in the morning, I prefer my daughter’s head not be atop, say, an image of a Little Caesar’s pizza.

There are other ways to relieve parents of a hefty bus fee — one is to allow students to pay per ride, like on a city bus. Barring that, we can always move to Worcester or Weston, where, as in the South, the school bus ride remains beautifully and blessedly free.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.
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