Wednesday, November 13, 2013
An Alabama town’s decision to eliminate bus service next year is supposed to save money, but may be instead highlighting the perverse incentives of accountability testing reform. The Hoover, Alabama school system, which is in a suburb of Birmingham, controversially decided to end bus transportation for all except children with special needs starting in the 2014-15 school year, saying that it would save $2.5 million of the district’s $160 million budget. The Hoover district denies that getting rid of the buses that serve half of its students has anything to do with test scores, property values, or the increasing ethnic diversity in the area. But eliminating school buses, as Trisha Powell Crain says at alabamaschoolconnection.org this week, will not bring substantial cost savings, or at least not any that will show up in classrooms. She made the attached graphic about school finances. The likely place where the money would go is for the $2.8 million increase on the district’s debt payment. This cost savings disconnect was brought home when Hoover announced its plans to pay for students to have iPads and Nooks in the 2013-14 school year. Locals have two theories about stopping the school buses: the first is that the district ended bus service to discourage recent immigrant families from remaining in Hoover, since their children will not have a way to school. The second theory is that the district is discouraging academically and economically disadvantaged students from moving into Hoover because those students may lower the district’s standardized test scores. I vote for mixed motive. Alabama is famously uncomfortable with immigration, so the increased diversity may be a factor in the changes. Other affluent districts around Hoover do not offer school bus transportation. Lower-income and immigrant families settle in Hoover because of the district’s good school ratings and bus transportation, as school board member Paulette Pearson pointed out this spring, saying that the bus system makes Hoover “as a bit of a haven, so [families] come straight to us. … We make it easy because we have some housing in our area that's pretty affordable, and they can take advantage of that.” But I also suspect that Hoover is trying to ease out lower-income and immigrant students to keep standardized test scores high. Because accountability testing has been made the divining rod of a good education, school districts feel that they cannot have a critical mass of students who do not perform well on standardized tests. In other words, the district is shedding students who most need a solid education.