California's Frontal Assault on Rural Schools

Last Updated: January 27, 2012

This article appeared in the January 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

California Governor Jerry Brown recently stunned school officials by announcing that all state aid for school transportation services would be eliminated. The $248 million slashing was nearly one-fourth of an overall billion-dollar cut in the state budget. Public schools also took another $80 million hit on other state education funding, boosting their share of the cuts to nearly one-third.

The cuts were mandated under a provision of the state budget law that triggered the cuts if state revenue fell short of projections in the first half of the fiscal year that began July 1.

The transportation cuts are shocking. The state typically has paid about one-third of school transportation costs but those costs play out very differently from school district to school district. In rural areas where there is little or no public transportation option, children who live miles from the school depend on the school bus and busing costs are high. So was state aid. These transportation aid cuts hurt all schools, but disproportionally hurt rural schools most.

School funding coalitions in the state, including the California Small Districts Association hope for an expedited legislative remedy. A remedy will probably not restore the cuts, but reallocate them more fairly, perhaps by a fixed amount per pupil.

If not, rural districts are likely to be headed for chaos. A higher percentage of students ride the bus in rural areas and the state share of the cost of transportation is also higher. The problem is compounded when parents commute out of the rural area for work in larger towns. Their only choice may be to remove their children from the rural school and enroll them in the workplace town. That will cost the rural school more in the portion of their state aid that is based on daily student attendance.

States take varied approaches to funding student transportation. Many use complicated reimbursement schemes based on prior year expenses of a district, many times with a number of adjustments.

Most use “categorical” aid that earmarks the money separately for use in transportation, but a few just include transportation as an estimated cost in the basic state aid formula, and that much might be used for transportation or not.

Some take into account the number of students who live more than a specified distance from their school (often a longer distance for older students than younger) and some factor in costs associated with isolation and/or population sparseness. Transportation for students with disabilities is factored in at a higher cost in most states.

Some states also vary allowances or reimbursement rates based on the wealth of the local district.

Whatever the approach, most states fund only a portion of the cost of transportation, although a few pay the whole fare. New Mexico and Wyoming theoretically pay 100 percent of the local district cost, and South Carolina basically operates the school transportation system as a state service.

The California attack on school transportation funding is an attack on all schools, but especially on rural schools. It raises serious questions about the constitutionality of the school funding system. There are currently at least three challenges to the California school funding system. The transportation cuts might produce a fourth, or become part of the case against the state in the other three.

Read more:

Read more from the January 2012 Rural Policy Matters.