More School Choice Means Long, Lonely Commutes for Kids

New study debunks the notion that poor kids are “trapped” in bad neighborhood schools.

Poor kids are far more likely to commute alone long distances to school that those in wealthier neighborhoods.<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-193662287/stock-photo-schoolboy-walk-alone.html?src=QhO_Uv6CFwArSqUyyqQ1gw-1-9">Concept Photo</a>/Shutterstock

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The school choice movement has sent low-income students commuting far and wide in search of a better education, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University. Whether those long commutes to school are worth the sacrifice isn’t so clear.

In a study of more than 24,000 records of Chicago students entering high school in the fall of 2009, JHU education professor Julia Burdick-Will found that the poorer a student’s neighborhood, the farther that student was likely to travel to get to school. In areas where the median income was $25,000 or less, kids spread out to an average of 13 different schools. In wealthy neighborhoods with median incomes above $75,000, most kids attended one of just three schools.

The social and geographic consequences of long school commutes can be significant, and another major barrier to success for poor children. Navigating such a complex educational system is a daunting task for even the best-prepared families. “We think of choice as a thing of privilege,” Burdick-Will said in a press release. “But what we see is that there is a privilege of not having to choose.”

Thanks to the school choice movement, by 2007, half of all Americans had some ability to choose their public high school. Chicago has been a trendsetter in this department. There, public school students have enjoyed a plethora of education choices since the city opened more than 50 new high schools, including magnet, open-enrollment, charter, and other independent public schools. The expanded choices have largely affected lower-income kids. Almost no children in the study from wealthy neighborhoods attended charter or open-enrollment schools.

Johns Hopkins University

Burdick-Will shows empirically that urban public school kids are highly mobile. She discovered that while about half the kids in the study attended traditional neighborhood schools, only a third of them were actually attending their own assigned neighborhood schools. Those school choices come at a steep cost of time. Ten percent of poor children were commuting more than six miles to school, and a quarter had to go more than four miles, whereas wealthy kids traveled on average only 1.7 miles. The additional daily mileage ensured that poor kids also were likely to be isolated from their families and neighborhood friends. Chicago students in the most disadvantaged areas were 35 percent more likely to be the only person from their neighborhood attending their school—one reason they were likely to be making their long commute all alone. 

School choice proponents may point to these trends as progress, showing that poor kids are no longer trapped in a bad school and that the long distances are worth the effort. But Burdick-Will found the opposite: Fifteen percent of the kids were fleeing a neighborhood school to go to another school that was significantly worse. When she excluded the relatively few kids who were traveling to high-quality magnet-type programs, she found that 40 percent of the kids she studied ended up in schools with lower test scores than the ones in their own backyards. The vast majority of them reported moving schools not for the academics, but for safety.

Even with the potentially safer alternatives offered by school choice, Burdick-Will found significant social costs to this dispersal of high school students, including their potential isolation while spending big parts of the day in a solitary commute. The long commutes may also be a factor in high school dropout rates. Among kids at the same schools with the same test scores, she suggests that those who have to knock themselves out just to get to school every day may be at higher risk of giving up altogether.

Neighborhoods, too, may suffer from exporting their kids to far-flung schools by robbing local schools of their role as important community institutions—the centers of gravity in wealthier neighborhoods that often wield significant political power. Burdick-Will highlights research showing that the parent networks formed at schools are tied to higher student achievement. Already overstretched working parents aren’t likely to have extra free time for school engagement and networking under many circumstances, but especially if their kid’s school is 10 miles away.

Affluent families seem to recognize the destabilizing effects of unfettered school choice. They’ve been among the most bitter foes of charter schools in wealthy parts of Maryland, northern Virginia, and New Jersey, which have been largely successful in keeping such schools out of their districts.

Burdick-Will focuses on Chicago, but it isn’t the only place where students are on the move. In DC, nearly half of all school-age kids from all income levels attend charter schools, which tend to force students to travel far beyond their neighborhoods. A study earlier this year found that kids with the longest commute to a charter school—more than five miles in a city whose farthest points are only about 14 miles apart—were traveling to a charter school of such a low quality that the city tried to shut it down this year for poor performance. Sixty percent of kids enrolled in traditional DC public schools commute less than a mile to school. Fewer than 10 percent of kids in DC charter schools have such a short commute.

What’s really interesting about the JHU study is that it isn’t a criticism of school choice per se, but a challenge to decades of poverty research that has accepted at face value the idea that where a child lives dictates where she goes to school. Burdick-Will notes that researchers have long used a local high school in their ethnographic studies of poor, urban neighborhoods “without questioning whether kids in the halls are the same as those in the streets.” That’s one reason, she suggests, researchers may have been so shocked by studies showing that moving poor people out of poor neighborhoods only had marginal effects on school performance. In fact, her data suggests that the kids in those families may have already fled their local schools long before their families fled the neighborhood.

“We think of children in poor neighborhoods as ‘stuck,'” she said. “But they’re not stuck in one geographic place. They’re stuck navigating a complicated and far-flung school system.”

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