Bowing to pleas mainly from rural school districts, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature left alone state subsidies for busing students to school when they created the Local Control Funding Formula last year, while acknowledging the $491 million program needed to be reformed. On Tuesday, the Legislative Analyst’s Office proposed three options to make the system more equitable and rational. Two – gradually phasing out the program or reimbursing only districts’ extraordinary busing costs – would save the state money. The third – expanding the program to cover a uniform percentage of the cost in every district – could add $260 million in new costs.
“Adopting any of the three options contained in this report would be a notable improvement,” the LAO report concluded, “and help the Legislature further its goal of building a school funding system that is simple, transparent, and rational.” Kenneth Kapphahn, a fiscal and policy analyst for the LAO, wrote the report.
Home-to-School Transportation, as the state program is known, covers only about a third of the $1.4 billion that school districts paid in busing costs in 2011-12 to transport about 700,000 students – one in eight – in the state. That percentage is lower than the national average of about 50 percent.
Federal law requires school districts to transport disabled students to and from school. The No Child Left Behind law requires districts to provide transportation for students from a low-performing school to a better school if parents request it, which few parents do. But otherwise, unlike many states, California leaves it up to districts to set the rules for bus transportation, and some districts over the years have cut back or eliminated the program. About a quarter of the state’s 950 districts bus less than 10 percent of students, while 100 districts – primarily small rural districts that enroll larger proportions of low-income students – transport more than half of their students, according to the LAO. About 40 districts spend more than $1,000 per student on busing – four times the state average.
An antiquated formula for distributing the money has compounded the disparities. Since the early 1980s, the state has frozen funding for districts, except for cost of living adjustments in some years, without regard to differences in enrollment growth over the past three decades. “As a result, funding allocations now vary across similar districts for no apparent reason,” the report noted, with a quarter of districts receiving reimbursements for less than 30 percent of their costs, with another quarter getting more than 60 percent of costs reimbursed.
Brown and the Legislature eliminated nearly all “categorical” programs and folded the funding for them into the Local Control Funding Formula, which redistributes money based on enrollments of low-income students, English learners and foster youth. But facing resistance from rural districts and Los Angeles Unified, which argued that busing students to magnet schools was part of its court-approved desegregation plan, Brown and the Legislature preserved Home-to-School Transportation. However, they also froze the funding level permanently and ended cost of living adjustments.
That approach, however, didn’t address the inequities of the formula, and so the Legislature asked the LAO to recommend a solution.
The three options are:
- Phase out funding for the program over the next several years and let districts decide how much to spend on busing from money it gets under the Local Control Funding Formula. The state would then have $491 million to spend elsewhere. Rural districts would complain about the new unreimbursed burden, but then, as the LAO points out, high-cost urban and coastal districts aren’t given extra money for the higher salaries they have to pay to hire and retain teachers.
- Establish a threshold for reimbursement and pay most of the costs above that level, easing the burden of districts facing disproportionate busing expenses. Busing consumes 5 percent or less of total expenses in about two-thirds of districts. About 70 districts, all rural, spend more than 8 percent of their budgets on busing. Covering 75 percent of expenses above that level would cost the state only about $10 million per year, the LAO said. The state would then save $481 million it’s paying now.
- Create a new formula that reimburses all districts for a portion of their transportation costs. This option would have the advantage of creating a uniform reimbursement rate, while creating incentives for efficiency, since districts would continue to bear the bulk of the cost. Reimbursing 35 percent of districts’ busing expense would add $120 million in funding costs for the state. Covering 50 percent of the expense would add $260 million to the $491 million it’s now paying.
John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.