The parents of most public school students who live far from or can’t safely walk to school are accustom to having their child’s transportation provided to and from school without charge. But that reality — one that, until now, was probably taken for granted by many parents — could become a distant memory if Michigan lawmakers enact a bill introduced in the state House of Representatives late last month. The legislation obviously is prompted by the state’s own budget shortfalls and school districts’ need to balance their budgets in the face of slashed per-pupil state aid and rising costs. It’s a drastic proposal that may not see the light of day in Lansing, and maybe shouldn’t. However, since the bill would put school boards in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding whether to charge parents for their child’s transportation, we’re not inclined to urge legislators to rule out the idea completely.
State Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth) wants to give public school districts the option of charging for transportation services, although the proposal, House Bill (HB) 4692, wouldn’t affect parents of students with disabilities or those who qualify for free or reduced lunch under the federal Richard B. Russell School Lunch Act.
School districts aren’t required to provide transportation services to all students under current state law. However, if the bill is approved by both chambers of the state Legislature, a board of education for a district that does provide transportation services would have the option to vote to charge a fee for those services if board members deemed it appropriate.
Under the state’s current revised School Code, public school districts aren’t required to transport or pay for transportation of a resident pupil living within 1.5 miles, by the nearest traveled route, to the public or state approved non-public school in which the pupil is enrolled.
The bill specifically strikes existing School Code language stating transportation provided to public school students shall be without charge to the resident pupil, the parent, or guardian. It also specifies that a school district that elects to provide transportation for its resident pupils may charge a fee for providing that transportation or for any other transportation that the school district offers — although, again, disabled students and those who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs would be exempted.
If the bill is enacted, school boards choosing to charge for student transportation would determine how fees would be paid, according to Heise. Pointing out that he would be open to modifying the exemption criteria currently outlined in the legislation — perhaps to take into consideration federal poverty levels or something similar — he said the bill would give school districts “another tool in their toolbox.”
Heise said he hasn’t conducted a head count tallying support in the House, which is controlled by the GOP. He said he expects the legislation to come up after some of the larger issues facing the state have been addressed this summer.
We admit we’re torn by the proposal. We’re not thrilled with the idea that the parents of students living more than 1.5 miles from school may have to start paying for their child’s transportation to and from school. That’s a service that’s been reasonably expected without charge for as long as anyone can remember. We fear there very well may be many families that don’t meet the exemption criteria (a disabled student or qualifying for free or reduced lunch programs) but would still have a difficult time paying for transportation services. Families haven’t had to budget for such an expense, and may not be able to accommodate a new charge. After all, these are hard times for families, too, not just the state and school districts.
At least HB 4692 doesn’t dictate to school districts on the issue. It merely allows districts — it doesn’t require them — to charge for student transportation.
Whether a school board would opt to charge for student transportation to and from school is an interesting question. Because school board members are elected officials, one would think they wouldn’t be eager to vote in favor of charging for pupil transportation: They would likely have to face the wrath of voters who are parents forced to pay for bus transportation, and it’s easy to imagine that wrath sweeping out the school board members voting in favor of such a charge. But that doesn’t mean a school board wouldn’t exercise the option. Some boards may feel, after years of budget cuts and more to come, that they have no choice but to start charging for bus transportation — particularly given the spike in fuel prices, which certainly is outside of school officials’ control.
One local lawmaker stated that given the big issues now before the state Legislature — including a significant teacher tenure reform package and work on a Detroit River International Crossing proposal — that the bill may not be taken up at all. We hope that’s the case, but don’t believe the proposal — as radical as it is — should be devoid of consideration.