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Colorado may offer Adams 14 students transportation to other schools

Close-up from outside a yellow school bus shows three young students wearing colorful face masks sitting in two rows.

Colorado will pursue options to fund transportation for Adams 14 students who want to transfer to higher-performing schools outside the district but lack a way to get there.

Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Some Adams 14 students who want to attend higher-performing schools may have more options this fall as the state seems poised to pay for transportation.

This would represent the first time the state covered transportation costs for students who want to transfer from low-rated schools to better ones. The conversation comes weeks after the State Board of Education gave the district more time to develop improvement plans.

On Friday, Colorado Department of Education staff presented two possible options for funding transportation to the State Board of Education. The board chose not to pick one, but instead asked the department to pursue both, in the interest of time, to see if one might work out by the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. 

Board members said that since Adams 14 is “in a crisis” — it’s the first district where several years of low performance triggered a state intervention that included external management — they want to eliminate the transportation barrier for students who want to attend school elsewhere under Colorado’s open enrollment program. Adams 14 has about 6,100 students enrolled while about 3,000 students have choiced out of the district.  

Transportation has been a major barrier to exercising school choice both within districts and across district lines. Advocates say students deserve more opportunities, but school districts have raised objections because losing students threatens their ability to fund programming for those who remain.

This would mark the first time the state would step in to provide transportation funding for those who choose schools outside their neighborhoods.

“We are so limited in options available to help kids,” said State Board Chair Angelika Schroeder. “This is hopefully one other option.”

Most districts don’t provide transportation for students who enroll in schools other than the ones in their neighborhood. And state law prohibits school districts from offering transportation across district boundaries without consent from the district that is losing students. A previous Republican-led effort to change the law was unsuccessful.

Other entities, such as public transportation systems or private companies paid by the state, wouldn’t face that prohibition. 

The first option relies on a plan already written in state law that was never funded or rolled out. It calls for having the state provide “tokens,” though it’s unclear whether that will be directly paying families with K-8 students enrolled in low-performing schools, reimbursing them, giving them bus passes, or something else. The draft rules presented Friday would limit eligibility to students enrolled in schools with the two lowest state ratings — priority improvement and turnaround — located within a district that also has one of the two lowest ratings for more than five subsequent years. 

In Colorado, only three Adams 14 elementary schools would meet that criteria, according to department staff.

The department would have to scramble to find a lawmaker to introduce and help pass statutory changes allowing the program to be funded with ESSR relief funds before the end of the legislative session scheduled for May 11.

Because of several existing laws, students would likely be limited to public transportation at first, though private transportation could be added later. 

For the second option, the department is considering creating a grant program so that districts, nonprofits, or other private transportation providers could apply directly for funding to transport students to schools of their choice. The state could be able to expand eligibility by making it available to high schools or beyond the three Adams 14 elementary schools eligible under the criteria mentioned in option one. 

Department staff pointed out that although they are interested in providing transportation to Adams 14 students, a grant option means anyone in the state could apply for the money to start offering rides, and if Adams 14 doesn’t want to apply, the state would have to wait until someone else in the area, like a nonprofit or the regional transportation system, wants to do it.

Lisa Escárcega, the only board member who voted against exploring the two options,  commented that a similar program had existed in the past under federal rules requiring that districts offer transportation within their district if a family wanted to send their children to higher performing schools. 

“The feds dropped that requirement because analysis showed it didn’t actually end up benefiting or changing student experience or improving achievement, or whatever it was,” Escárcega said. “We did have some parents who took us up on this … but eventually a lot of districts had no parents that wanted to take them up on it. They don’t want their kids going across the district.”

Adams 14 officials did not respond on Friday to a request for comment.

The State Board plans to continue discussing the grant options at its regular May meeting.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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