Will free buses help kids get to school?
Nidya Baez is an assistant principal at Fremont High School in Oakland. She used to bring extra cash to school, in case a student asked for bus money.
“I would hear, ‘Can I get a dollar to get on the bus?’” remembers Baez.
Just eleven percent of California's K-12 public school students ride a school bus. That’s the lowest rate in the nation by far. Public schools in California are not required to provide buses for most students, and the state cut school bus spending by 20% during the recession.
For kids in low-income families, paying the fare for public transportation can become one more barrier to getting a good education. Now, a new pilot program in Alameda County is offering free bus passes to students at a few schools, thanks to the work of advocates like Oakland’s Devon Allen.
Allen, now 25, remembers growing up labeled as “the impressionable little nerdy nice guy.”
On his first day at James Madison Middle school, he got teased for his sneakers. “People wanted to pick on me because they was wearing Nikes and Jordans,” says Allen. “I showed up with light-up shoes.”
Oakland public schools don’t run any yellow school buses, so Allen usually took the public bus home. Because he was going through a custody battle, sometimes he stayed with his mom, and sometimes he stayed with an auntie.
“So it was tough trying to figure out, ‘Okay, who's paying for what?’ ‘How's he going to get to school?’” says Allen.
Some days he didn’t have bus money. So he’d have to walk. Or run.
One bully in particular would chase him after school. “I used to be hopping fences,” Allen says, “trying to get away from him and basically fight my way home.”
Later, as a high school student, Allen interned with Youth Uprising, a leadership and community organizing group. Understanding how mobility affected students, he chose to focus his energy on transportation.
He and other student leaders surveyed over 250 Oakland youth. Almost half reported missing school because they didn’t have bus money. Some told Allen that they had missed weeks of school.
“What blew my mind even more,” says Allen, “was how much they were paying for transportation.” He says one student described paying $200 for transportation in a single month.
This was in 2014. Allen soon found out that there was a county-wide bond measure that year that addressed this very problem.
Measure BB, as it appeared on the ballot, supported a battery of transportation projects in Alameda County. One of those projects focused on making transit affordable for student riders.
AC Transit already offers a youth bus pass for twenty dollars a month, but for reasons of cost or availability, it can be hard for parents to obtain the monthly pass. Through Measure BB, students at some schools would receive passes that were not just discounted, but free.
When Devon Allen heard about that, he started speaking at churches, calling people, canvassing, and passing out flyers about Measure BB. He worked with activists from the Bay Area group Genesis, who had advocated to include a free bus pass in the measure.
Another advocate for the pilot program was Yvonne Williams, President of Local Amalgamated Transit Union 192, which represents most AC Transit employees.
“Transportation, we feel, is a right,” says Williams. In her words, if a parent doesn’t have a car, their children “shouldn't be deprived of the ability to get the education they need.”
When Williams drove buses in Oakland, she says she regularly saw kids without bus money.
“I've had parents bring students to the bus stop, and just say, ‘Can you do it for me one more time? Can you get my baby to school?’” She couldn’t refuse.
The measure passed with 70 percent of the vote.
“I'll never forget the day I got the text message saying that it went through,” says Allen. “I jumped for joy, man.”
AC Transit ran a similar pilot in 2002: a free bus pass for low-income students only. They cut the program short after a year, though, because they found it was too expensive to determine who qualified as low-income.
The new program tests a few different models. Students at five schools get free bus passes. A handful of other schools are experimenting with free passes for some, and discounts for others. At two schools, the program is purely educational; they teach students about the discounts that already exist.
The pilot began this school year.
Teanna Ortiz is a sophomore at Fremont High School, in East Oakland. On a Thursday morning, she steps onto a bus with her new Clipper card. Her name is on the back.She’s one of more than 2500 students who have received a free or discounted pass through the program.
“It makes a difference,” says Ortiz, “because don’t we gotta worry about spending our money.”
When AC Transit ran the similar pilot in 2002, afterschool participation increased, but school attendance did not. Researchers weren’t so surprised. They say it usually takes years to change attendance patterns.
The new pilot program runs for three years. At the end, transit officials will assess what worked, what didn’t, and try to expand it to other schools. However, no solution will come cheap. Just running this small pilot costs taxpayers $15 million out of the Measure BB bond funds.
At the gates of Fremont High, Assistant Principal Nidya Baez greets every student coming in.She’s the one who used to have students asking her for bus money.
“We always made sure that all the leaders at the school or the teachers would keep dollars,” Baez says. She would give a dollar for the bus ride home, and then ask, “‘Do you want a dollar to come back tomorrow?’”
This money came out of her own pocket. Baez says that now, the bus pass sends a message to students.
“That was a big thing when we were doing registration,” says Baez. “Students felt like their school was giving them something good.”
Now, some students wear the cards around their necks. “They’re proud of it,” says Baez.
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