The yellow school bus could become another victim of the Great Recession in some parts of Washington.
Gov. Chris Gregoire doesn't want to see her state stop spending money to get kids to school. But any squeamishness over student transportation cuts isn't enough to keep that $220 million idea off her list of ways to potentially deal with budget shortfalls, the latest a $2 billion one.
Tough choices are the rule of the day in nearly every state in the rough U.S. economy.
But have things gotten so bad that it's time to tell kids to find their own way to school? Washington would be the first to completely eliminate state dollars for bus service because of the recent recession, said Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. He noted that a few other states, including California and Colorado, have cut school transportation dollars in previous years.
Gregoire has floated the idea in advance of a special legislative session later this month. She is sending lawmakers a long list of ideas, including many she expects would hurt regular people.
The Democratic governor's proposal was the topic of discussion at a student bus stop in Normandy Park, Wash., on Thursday morning. Debra Carnes, who was waiting for the bus with her fourth grader, called the idea horrible _ but better than cutting money going to the classroom. She wondered what impact it would have on the attendance of low-income students and those new to the U.S.
"Our family, we'll figure it out. But there's a lot out there who would struggle," she said.
All states don't help pay to bus students to school _ although transporting disabled kids is required by federal law _ but most do, Riley said. About half the nation's public school children ride a yellow school bus, his association estimates.
States pay between 30 and 100 percent of the cost of student transportation in most places, including 67 percent in Washington state. The dollars are not evenly distributed across Washington, however, with some districts depending 100 percent on the state for transportation dollars and others filling in with local levy dollars.
Riley says the idea of cutting money for buses is problematic for several reasons _ from student safety to more traffic and air pollution from parents driving their kids to the impact it may have on attendance.
Washington's state schools chief, Randy Dorn, says there's one more consideration here: the state Constitution requires the state government to amply pay the costs of basic education, as defined by the state Legislature. Student transportation is part of the definition of basic education and although it's been a long time since the state has paid the entire cost of busing kids to school, that doesn't mean it shouldn't even try, he said.
Jim Crawford, an education number cruncher in the state Office of Financial Management, said the definition of basic education is open for debate.
"Because it's basic ed, doesn't mean it can't ever be touched under any circumstances," Crawford said, adding that the Legislature would have to adjust the definition to make way for many of the governor's ideas for cutting the state education budget.
State Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, believes most of the items on the governor's list for education cuts are prohibited. Other proposals on the governor's list include increasing class sizes, reducing the school year by a week and eliminating full-day kindergarten.
"The Constitution either means something or it doesn't," said the Democrat from Medina, a suburb east of Seattle. "If it doesn't, can we just dispense with the other parts as well?"
Hunter wasn't ready to offer his own list this week, but he points out, as an example, that the Legislature has followed the rules and paid 100 percent of the state's debt service each year, because the Constitution requires it. He said the same argument could be used to argue for paying for basic education.
Dorn said he's hoping for an assist from the Washington Supreme Court, which is deliberating over a school spending lawsuit. School districts, education and community groups and parents are suing the state to demand it fulfill its constitutional duty to pay for basic education. A lower court judge ruled in favor of the school districts. When the state Supreme Court considered a similar case in the 1970s, it ordered the Legislature to take the Constitution more seriously.
Seattle Public Schools, the state's largest school district, stands to lose the most from the governor's school bus idea. The state currently pays only 50 percent of the cost to transport Seattle kids, but that adds up to about $15.7 million a year, said Tom Bishop, transportation manager for the district.
Bishop said school administrators have been working for years on a neighborhood school assignment and transportation plan designed to cut the number of kids taking the bus. At the same time, the district is hoping to prevent more parents from driving their kids, without increasing truancy, because as Bishop points out, Seattle is one of the top 10 worst traffic cities in the country.
But even with nearly $16 million on the line, Bishop isn't freaking out.
"The fiscal crisis that Washington faces is of historic nature and the governor's proposals for budget reductions are a glimpse of how serious the situation is," he said. Bishop was not ready to predict how his district would deal with a budget cut like the governor is proposing.
In the meantime, Seattle is working toward a future when many more kids will be walking to school.
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