Is Omaha Public Schools' busing plan paying off?

John Phelps, lead dispatcher with Student Transportation of America, walks among parked buses at the company's 54th and L Streets location. Student Transportation replaces longtime bus contractor First Student this school year.

The yellow buses were busy last year in the neighborhood around Ashland Park-Robbins Elementary School.

Every day, 178 grade-schoolers were picked up and driven to their choice of other Omaha Public Schools buildings.

And every day, buses brought 107 students from other parts of the district to take classes at Ashland Park-Robbins.

But all that busing had little impact on socioeconomic integration of OPS schools, according to a World-Herald analysis of elementary student transportation and attendance patterns.

Since 1999, when OPS ended forced integration busing, the district has used school choice policies to give families more options and help integrate its schools voluntarily. But families make their school choices for reasons that may not include integration.

As a result, the students who left Ashland Park-Robbins mostly chose schools that had similar demographics, and most of the students who selected the school, near 51st and Q Streets, had the same characteristics as the neighborhood kids.

It's a pattern that was often repeated across Nebraska's largest school district, which spends $40 million annually on busing. More than half of that, however, is spent on special ed transportation and other busing not related to school choice.

A breakdown of the cost of busing for school choice wasn't available.

The busing policy is one issue OPS will examine as it rethinks its priorities under the new superintendent and a revamped school board.

OPS board President Justin Wayne said the district needs to look closely at whether transportation is the best place to spend the district's money.

“What's the value? What's the bang for the buck?” Wayne asked. “Does the community still want to bus kids all over the place? ... Or would they rather see that money be used to get a better educational outcome?”

Wayne said the OPS board is gathering information about the district's student assignment plan this summer and fall as it develops a strategic plan. That will include feedback from surveys and community forums.

OPS officials also are examining possible changes in the school choice and busing policies to make them more integrative and more efficient. One proposal floated to board members in April might sharply reduce the number of schools available for elementary students to choose.

Wayne said the OPS review should consider the importance of school choice for parents and students, the need for busing to help students get safely to and from school, and the impact of busing and school choice on student achievement.

Superintendent Mark Evans agreed. He said school choice and busing are complex issues that affect district resources and need to be reviewed through the strategic planning process.

“It's going to be something that we're going to want to hear from the public on,” Evans said.

The World-Herald analyzed OPS data on 26,640 elementary students enrolled last year to examine how students were bused around the district. It didn't include data on students who transferred to or from other local districts.

About one-fourth of the OPS students — nearly 7,000 — used district transportation.

The data included details on each student's neighborhood school, school attended, distance from home to school, and whether the student received subsidized lunch, which is an indicator of family income.

The World-Herald analysis found that 30 percent of the elementary busing made a meaningful impact on socioeconomic integration.

In part, the integration impact was limited because many of those bused students didn't change schools at all. Nearly 2,000 of them received bus rides to their home schools simply because they lived at least 1.5 miles away, which is OPS policy.

In addition, the current OPS student assignment plan and its busing component emphasize choice more than integration.

OPS rules don't require students who are bused to another school to pick one with different demographics.

The World-Herald's analysis counted such moves as meaningful integration only if they helped balance the percentage of low-income students at district schools.

For low-income students, the analysis defined meaningful integration as being bused to schools where the subsidized-lunch rate was at least 10 percentage points lower than in their home neighborhoods.

For other students, the analysis called for students to attend schools with lunch rates that were at least 10 points higher.

More than half the time, a student bused under the program chose a school that didn't meet that standard.

The method that OPS uses to judge whether school choices improve integration is different from The World-Herald's. But its approach also showed a limited impact, with 53 percent of the moves making a difference.

In fact, student choices sometimes created less balance and more concentrated poverty at individual schools than if students had remained in their own neighborhoods.

For example, 85 percent of students in the Ashland Park-Robbins neighborhood were from low-income families. At Highland Elementary to the east, it was 93 percent.

Yet OPS bused 34 additional low-income students to Highland — including 14 from lower-poverty Ashland Park-Robbins — under its school choice plan. After all the moves, Highland wound up with even higher poverty.

The student choice plan did result in more integration at some schools. For example, busing resulted in a net increase of 54 low-income students at Washington Elementary, a low-poverty school east of Elmwood Park.

Overall, a disproportionate share of the students who are bused in the school choice programs come from low-income, minority families who live east of 72nd Street.

Integration does play some role in the OPS school choice plan. For example, transferring students receive preference for openings if they help integrate their new school — although students with siblings at the school have even greater priority.

But anyone who wants to change schools can do so if there's room — and integration isn't always uppermost in parents' minds.

OPS recently surveyed parents and found these top reasons for choosing a non-neighborhood school:

» Perceiving the new school as “better” than the home attendance school

» Greater diversity

» Transportation available to new school but not to the home school

The busing plan is particularly favorable to low-income students.

Under the plan, students who pay full price for lunch get a bus ride outside the neighborhood only if they help integrate a high-poverty school.

But all low-income students qualify for transportation if they are at least a mile from their new school.

That's true whether the new school is a low-poverty or high-poverty school.

Most OPS students do qualify for the subsidized lunch program, which means they also are eligible for a free bus ride to a non-neighborhood school.

Two-thirds of those choosing busing attend a school less than four miles from home.

Since nearby schools often have similar demographics, however, such moves are less likely to provide much integration.

OPS officials say the current system emphasizes choice regardless of integration because the district was trying to conform to rules established for the 11-district Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

Carla Noerrlinger, who heads the OPS research office, said recent changes in state law may permit OPS to return to some of its previous policies to increase integration and reduce transportation costs.

Before the Learning Community, OPS had offered voluntary busing to spur transfers among schools. The options were limited to geographic zones that made bus routes more efficient and steered students to schools that differed demographically from their home attendance areas.

That earlier plan wasn't perfect, either, containing incentives that led some low-income students in suburban areas to seek bus rides into high-poverty areas.

But the idea of geographic zones could form the basis of a redesigned OPS choice and busing plan, district officials said in April in written responses to school board questions about transportation.

In moving to neighborhood schools in 1999, the district lowered class sizes in high-poverty areas and created magnet schools to encourage integration. OPS told families they could choose a magnet or another school if they weren't satisfied with their neighborhood school.

Given the cost, Wayne said he would like to know whether busing or school choice has resulted in higher academic achievement.

Noerrlinger said officials are beginning to look at that issue, although she said it could be difficult to prove a student did better solely because of school choice.

Wayne said he hasn't made up his mind about how to revamp the busing policy. But he is more interested in raising academic achievement than in busing. A strong education allows someone to have a stable job and choose where to live, he said.

“True diversity comes from a great education,” Wayne said.

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