Chicago Public Schools is facing increased pressure to help the families of children who are traveling to magnet and selective enrollment schools this year without district-provided busing, as well to make sure students in special education get legally-mandated transportation.
The school district has been grappling with a bus driver shortage for more than two years. That came to a head when the Board of Education decided to prioritize rides for students in special education or who are homeless. CPS is legally required to provide them transportation to school that meets their needs. Some of those students waited months for service last year and thousands were traveling more than an hour each way.
The percentage of special education students in the district has risen in recent years and some 1,700 more qualify for transportation this year than last, according to the district. About 150 special education students whose parents have recently requested transportation are currently awaiting routes. CPS says 8,100 students already have routes.
Special education advocates stress bus service for disabled students is about the fundamental right to a free and appropriate education. And last week the state announced it was investigating a systemic complaint concerning delays in providing service.
At the same time, parents of magnet and selective enrollment students formed a new group, CPS Parents for Busing, and have a list of demands. Three weeks before school began in August, the board announced it would not transport the 5,500 magnet and selective enrollment students this semester who were previously eligible for a ride to their schools. For decades, these students received busing if they lived between 1.5 and 6 miles from their school. A key goal of these schools is to draw students from around the city.
This unleashed a torrent of complaints from parents, who say they have to take time away from work and spend long hours in the car to get their children to and from school.
The school district has not made an announcement for next semester, but is still looking for more than 600 bus drivers. CPS officials say they are doing everything possible to hire more drivers. They have increased pay and are holding 12 job fairs over the next month.
CPS Parents for Busing spokeswoman Katie Milewski says CPS could be doing more. Parents notice yellow school buses on the streets with lots of empty seats. She says CPS should be offering those seats to magnet and selective enrollment students, especially if already established routes overlap with where kids need to go.
“They need to open it up,” she said. “It is unconscionable what they are doing to these families.”
The group also would like magnet and selective enrollment families who qualify for transportation to be offered $500 monthly stipends. Milewski says these stipends can help pay for gas or for private transportation. Without it, she says some parents have already pulled their children out of their schools and others will likely consider it. CPS is currently offering free CTA rides for students and one adult.
“Going forward we want to come up with solutions with CPS that can at least help all of our families in some way instead of just leaving to fend for themselves,” she said.
CPS officials said in a statement that they are trying to “identify viable and equitable solutions and ensure every eligible student has safe, secure, and reliable transportation to and from school.”
They did not specifically address in their statement the request to give empty seats on school buses to magnet and selective enrollment students. But in public statements they have indicated it may be inequitable to offer busing to some and not others. Also, it could prolong routes for special education students and could open the district up to action from the state, which doesn’t want kids in special education traveling for more than an hour.
In addition, providing transportation stipends to all 5,500 magnet and selective enrollment students who qualify could cost the district as much as $25 million a year, CPS says. The school district already plans to spend $146 million on transportation this year.
Historically students in magnet and selective enrollment schools received transportation because they helped the school district comply with a desegregation consent decree. These schools were designed as islands of integration in an otherwise segregated school system.
But in 2009, the consent decree was lifted. Part of the reason school district officials wanted it lifted was to have more flexibility around busing, which is expensive for the cash-strapped school district.
CPS officials continued to provide transportation and create additional magnet and selective enrollment schools, saying they believed in the idea of diverse schools.