Seattle, WA — Free public transit passes won’t necessarily help Denver Public School (DPS) students access the city’s highest-performing schools, according to a new analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell.
Transportation is a vexing concern for cities like Denver that offer families school choice. A choice system can’t truly be equitable if the best schools aren’t accessible for large numbers of students. To examine whether providing all students with passes for Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) service could extend students’ access to schools, CRPE researchers linked administrative data from DPS with information about the RTD system. They found that while most of the city’s students can reasonably use public transit to get to their current school, the highest-performing schools would remain difficult to access for many, especially students of color and those from low-income families.
According to the analysis, only 58% of DPS students could currently get to a top-rated school in 30 minutes or less using public transit, and the burden is especially great for students of color. While 69% of white students live within 30 minutes of a top-rated school, only 53% of Hispanic students and 63% of black students do. There is a similar transit-time gap when considering family income. What’s more, white students are likelier to have more than one top school within relatively easy reach to choose from.
Importantly, the analysis only considered whether students could reach a high-quality school within 30 minutes on public transit, not whether students could actually enroll in that school. Many schools in Denver are sought by far more students than they can serve, and students living far away may have little chance of enrolling in them given that the system prioritizes proximity.
“Because of Denver’s geography, transportation corridors, and segregation by race, ethnicity, and income, the public transit system really isn’t a substitute for more high-quality schools in the neighborhoods that need them most,” said CRPE research director and lead author Betheny Gross. “Other creative and strategic options to expand students’ access to top-rated schools might include micro schools or providing more students with virtual access to classrooms in the city’s best schools.”
Findings from the analysis that may apply to other high-choice cities wrestling with the challenge of transportation include:
Public transit will not be an adequate substitute for a well-distributed supply of quality schools.
Any individual school will always be unreachable to some students, so cities must think hard about the placement of highly specialized schools that are limited in number—for example, select arts academies—to ensure that the maximum number of students can reach them.
For some students in isolated regions, access to quality schools can improve by considering options outside the district boundaries.
For Denver and other cities, the most enduring solution for improving access is to have more high-quality schools—by improving existing schools, replicating higher-performing schools, or launching promising new schools in select neighborhoods. While such investments can be difficult, costly, and time-consuming, the results could be dramatically improved access for the students most in need.
Can Public Transportation Improve Students’ Access to Denver’s Best Schools of Choice? by Betheny Gross and Patrick Denice, is available at crpe.org.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) is a research and policy analysis center developing system-wide solutions for K-12 public education. CRPE is affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell and based in Seattle. CRPE’s work is funded entirely through philanthropy, federal grants, and contracts. Learn more at crpe.org.