IT IS just after eight in the morning and Chelsea, a young mother from Fort Wayne, Indiana, looks grey with stress as she drops her child at Glenwood Park, an elementary school in the city’s north-east. Like many in this drab rustbelt city, she used to rely on school buses to pull off an elaborate daily ballet, involving her mother, a niece and others, to get her children to and from classes. But as this academic year begins, budget cuts have forced Fort Wayne to take scores of school buses out of service. When lessons resumed about 7,000 pupils found themselves without a bus ride. The changes make getting to work “a lot harder”, says Chelsea, steering her ageing Chrysler around a new three-lane access loop at Glenwood Park, built to handle the extra car traffic.
These bus cuts are more than a local drama. Look closely, and Fort Wayne’s woes point to a larger debate about how to pay for and supply public services. Today around half of all American schoolchildren—about 25m—ride an estimated 480,000 school buses to lessons. But school districts across the country face cuts to their transport budgets. Some voters, notably older folk, say they are not fussed. Such oldies grumble that today’s children are soft if they need busing about, claiming—to quote a Republican state representative from Indiana—that they walked miles to school each day even in deep snow, and “uphill both ways”. But among younger voters, especially parents, school buses remain popular. Paying for them is less popular.
Indiana offers an early glimpse of a trend that is only set to grow. The state’s problem is that school buses are financed by property taxes. In 2008 state legislators passed property-tax caps, which may only be broken if local governments or school districts can win referendums to fund specific projects. Voters liked the tax caps enough to enshrine them in the state constitution in 2010, making them hard to reverse. Various waivers and tweaks delayed the full impact of the tax caps on school-bus budgets. Now—half a decade after the country was swept by Tea Party rallies and anti-tax fervour—the cuts are biting. Fort Wayne expects to lose $2.5m from its school-transport budget in the coming year (and is forbidden to spend money from other funds on buses, or to charge fees for school transport). Local officials further reduce funds for schools by offering tax breaks to attract businesses, and by diverting property taxes to economic-development schemes. Four other school districts in Indiana have served formal notice that they may scrap bus services.
In March Indiana’s Supreme Court ruled that the right to a free public education does not guarantee free transport to the schoolhouse door, unless legislators pass a law to that effect. The Republicans who control the state’s legislature are unlikely to oblige. Their priority in recent years has been school choice. The state has encouraged charter schools and created vouchers that parents can take to fee-paying private and religious schools, so that money no longer flows automatically into school districts but instead follows individual children.
Complicating the politics, school buses have their roots in a very different philosophy. More than just machines for moving children around, they have often been tools for social engineering. Busing took off in the 1930s, as progressive education officials sought to close one-room rural schoolhouses and move kids to “modern” township schools. Visitors to the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, can see a handsome school bus used in pre-war Indiana. Some rural parents feared the new schools would bring higher taxes and alien values, the museum notes: they were overruled. Even their uniform colour dates back to a meeting of experts in New York in 1939, who deemed bright yellow the most visible shade at dawn and dusk, setting a standard now known as “National School Bus Chrome”. The civil-rights era saw furious protests as courts ordered schoolkids bused across once-inviolable racial lines.
A series of desegregation plans explain why Fort Wayne has rather a large school bus fleet (it has 240 now, serving a district with 30,000 pupils). A first plan saw black pupils carried from the inner city to white suburban secondary schools. That “one-way busing” did not bring about a “kumbaya moment” of racial or educational equality, recalls Fort Wayne’s school superintendent, Wendy Robinson, who was raised in the city. A more ambitious desegregation plan, agreed to after a lawsuit in the 1980s, opened “magnet schools” in the inner city, offering such specialisms as science or a Montessori education. The aim was to create schools that both urban and suburban families wanted to attend, giving kids from all backgrounds a reason to jump on the bus.
Round and round
Today Fort Wayne’s public schools are more racially mixed than in comparable cities and almost half of all district pupils are white. Many children are poor enough to receive free school lunches (and indeed breakfasts) but, at 88.6%, its high-school graduation rates are above the national average. Ms Robinson insists that her district embraces the concept of parental choice, and actively competes with next-door suburban districts. “We have to be good enough that people want to choose us,” she says—though she sees vouchers that subsidise private or church schools as unfair competition. Fort Wayne holds annual “choice fairs” at which parents are wooed by each of the city’s public schools and urged to select the establishment that impresses them, not just the nearest. But without lots of buses, Ms Robinson argues, parental choice is an empty promise for single mothers working two jobs, or for families without cars.
Fort Wayne’s bus crisis is surely fixable. Indiana passed rigid tax caps without pondering the trade-offs that might follow. The school district is wedded to a business model that involves owning hundreds of its own yellow buses. America used to excel at finding practical solutions to such puzzles. Not any more, according to The Economist.