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A Victory on School Transportation

According to our research, the anticipated district savings of $3.8 million would have been dwarfed by the $6-7 million a year minimum that families would have to put out – an enormous burden.

Thousands of high school students will continue receiving free SEPTA transpasses thanks to the work of Parents United for Public Education in partnership with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and other individuals.

On Aug. 21st, the School Reform Commission announced that they had withdrawn a proposal to extend the distance requirement from 1.5 to 2.0 miles for free SEPTA transpasses. For September, the distance will remain at 1.5 miles.

Had the proposal been approved, over 7,500 high school students in public, parochial and private schools living within two miles of their school would have lost access to free transpasses. Students would either have to walk up to 4 miles a day roundtrip through unfamiliar neighborhoods or pay hundreds of dollars per child for safe transportation.

According to our research, the anticipated district savings of $3.8 million would have been dwarfed by the $6-7 million a year minimum that families would have to put out – an enormous burden.

Philadelphia runs one of the most expensive transportation systems in the country. There are no discounts for transfers. At $2.25/trip leg for 180 days, this is a minimum of $810 a year per student. Double that for every transfer needed. Then multiply that times the number of high school age students in a family. A monthly pass at $91 a month would mean that each student pay $910 a year. In a city where 40% of children live in poverty, transferring such a financial burden onto families and young people makes little sense and feels unnecessarily cruel.

Moreover, we noted the SEPTA transpass program is 100 percent reimbursed by the state the following year. Any “savings” are based more on accounting legerdemain than on actual realized dollars. This is only a one-time deal, not recurring savings.

In addition to the costs, Parents United raised concerns that the District had not conducted a significant impact study of students who lived near dangerous travel routes such as Roosevelt Boulevard or who might have been impacted by school closings. We also raised concerns that a new transfer policy passed late last spring allows principals to force students back to their neighborhood school if students showed “excessive” absences or tardiness. A brand new potentially punitive policy followed by a harsh extension in free transportation mileage seemed to erect more barriers for children to participate in schools, not less.

It is not lost on us that this is a school budget filled with impossible choices, one of the reasons we were disappointed in the District’s refusal to hire adequate staff and operate schools responsibly until the money ran out. In a situation where the District only solves problems by cutting, there are few winners. Even if the cigarette tax passes later this fall, the District has already cut tens of millions of dollars from the operating budget.

Fortunately, in this situation, parents won a small victory in a difficult time. We did so by finding common alliance with partners like the Archdiocese, and thanks to the willingness of concerned and thoughtful staff within the District. It’s worth remembering that a stable school district benefits everyone.

We are glad that thousands of children won’t have to worry unnecessarily about how to get to school come September. In the meantime, we’ll keep working on funding issues and a better budget for all city children.

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