Riding the Success Express

How limited transportation undermines school choice — even in Denver, where an innovative shuttle system has drawn Betsy DeVos’s praise

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
School officials help students getting off the Success Express buses at University Prep in Denver last week.

Six years after Denver Public Schools created an innovative bus shuttle system to help get students to school, the effort has expanded and evolved but the larger problem it sought to fix remains.

The system, called the Success Express, was introduced in 2011 in northeast Denver with the goal of helping families choose high-quality schools as the district was changing the choice process and overhauling low-performing schools in the far northeast part of the city.

The Denver school district for years has received national praise for simplifying the school choice process, but providing adequate transportation continues to be barrier to real choice. Districts nationally still have looked at the Success Express as a model — one of relatively few examples of an urban district trying to tackle broader transportation challenges.

The 92,000-student district was spotlighted again last week when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the Success Express in a speech celebrating “out-of-the-box approaches.”

“This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options,” said DeVos, who has championed expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools.

For a number of reasons — including limited resources, logistical difficulties and the hardships of getting multiple agencies with different goals to agree on a plan — solving the transportation puzzle remains elusive in Denver and other cities.

A research report last month from the nonprofit Urban Institute identified transportation barriers in five cities, including Denver, and called choice an “empty” promise for many families.

While the Success Express has grown, it still only serves a limited part of the city. At the same time, school district and city officials are not on the same page with the region’s transportation agency about a separate proposal to increase transportation for another group of students by providing more public bus passes for high schoolers.

When it launched in the far northeast part of the city, the Success Express provided transportation to 18 area schools — including district-operated schools and charter schools. Today, the shuttle on average takes almost 3,000 students to 35 schools just in that area. The district replicated the model last year with two new routes in west Denver for middle school students.

In all cases, the routes include all school types in the area, including charter schools, district-managed schools and innovation schools, which are district-run but operate with many of the same freedoms as independent, publicly-funded charter schools.

Welcoming a mix of different school governance structures — an approach known as “the portfolio model” — has been a hallmark of Denver Public School reforms over the past decade.

“We’re happy to be part of the larger system,” said David Singer, executive director and founding principal of University Prep charter school, which has two schools on Success Express routes. “It has provided increased choice for families across our community. Our families by and large have had a positive experience.”

Outside the Success Express routes, most charter schools don’t provide transportation, though some off the routes have chosen to purchase bus service from the district.

In other cities, options are far more limited. In Detroit, charter schools that have opened as replacements for district-run schools do not provide transportation. That has left several families traveling dozens of miles to get their kids to the new schools.

There’s little argument about how innovative Denver’s system is. But it has it shortcomings.

For example, families in the zone of a Success Express shuttle can get free transportation to any school in their home region. But if they choose to go to a school outside the shuttle’s reach — one that’s farther and more difficult to get to — they’re on their own.

Some families who are able to drive their kids to school are choosing to skip the Success Express because of the time kids would spend on the bus.

“One parent would say, ‘My student’s on the bus for 45 minutes when I can drive to that school in 10 or 15 minutes,’ but that’s the tradeoff,” said Nicole Portee, the executive director of transportation for DPS. “We’re covering a large geographic area.”

Finding a way to transport every student who chooses to go to a school other than the one in their neighborhood is not likely to ever happen, officials admit.

“From a systems perspective, we don’t have enough resources,” Portee said. “If you imagine a city street that has 10 homes on it and every home has a different school of choice, you would need thousands and thousands of buses.”

Todd Ely, director for the Center for Local Government Research and Training at the University of Colorado Denver, co-wrote a study on the Success Express and has looked at transportation models in other cities and called Denver’s a good idea but only one piece of a hard-to-solve puzzle.

“As far as better systems, I don’t think there is (one),” Ely said. “The more you have kids coming from the same neighborhood, going to different schools, the more expensive and complicated the transportation service needs to be. I don’t think we really have an answer aside from these piecemeal or ad-hoc solutions.”

DPS, in fact, is working with the city and advocacy groups on another initiative that fits that definition: getting more bus passes for high school students.

DPS doesn’t provide yellow bus service for high school students outside of the Success Express regions, but instead gives a bus pass for public transit to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The groups working on the plan, including the district officials, acknowledge that the Success Express has not been, and won’t be, a solution for all students city-wide and are looking at other plans that could help.

The district estimates it purchases about 2,500 Regional Transportation District bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools also use their own budgets to buy bus passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

The idea the city of Denver pitched to RTD would allow the district to purchase yearly passes for students instead of monthly passes — at considerable savings — charging the rate given to businesses. That could allow the district to quadruple the number of passes it gives students.

DPS padded its bus pass budget with $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November. Denver city officials said they also would contribute money to pay for the passes.

But according to city officials, RTD officials are not ready to commit, wanting first for a task force that just started meeting this month to complete research on RTD’s many different passes and rates.

City officials say they want to proceed now rather than waiting, saying new data on student bus use could inform the task force’s work.

“We want to be able to remove some barriers, so if a family wants to go take their kid to a school across town because that’s the best fit for their children, we don’t want them to be prohibited,” said Dionne Williams, deputy director of children’s affairs for the city of Denver.

The discussions illustrate how difficult the issue is to solve. In the meantime, transportation remains an important factor for families and students considering schools.

Haydn Roberts, a 17-year-old student at DSST Cole, a charter school in northeast Denver, said that when his family chose to send him to Cole, they had considered East High School and DSST at Stapleton first, but ultimately went with Cole because of transportation concerns.

Taking the bus to East was a direct ride, while taking the bus to the other schools would have meant getting on multiple buses and extending his commute.

“Sitting at the bus stop that long, my family decided that would not be safe for me,” Roberts said.

For the city, transportation is important for school choice, but also for students to get to recreation centers, libraries and other services that are free for students with the My Denver card. It’s also about giving students transportation to summer jobs.

In other cities that have tried to lower transportation barriers, the struggle is often about money. While school districts want to save their money to spend in the classroom, transit agencies can lose millions providing free or reduced cost passes to students.

“Just like any other government agency, we have to be fiscally responsible,” said Nate Currey, a spokesman for RTD. “We get a lot of requests. Anytime we offer a discounted fare, it does cost us money.”

Currey did not have any estimates on potential fiscal impacts from the proposal

“Bottom line is we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for everybody,” Currey said.

City officials said the conversation isn’t over and that they are now looking into possible alternatives while RTD’s task force finishes its work.

DPS officials said their work improving Success Express and transportation in general is ongoing.

“We have to work within those constraints that will never change,” said Portee, the transportation director. “It doesn’t limit our ability to continue trying to think about how we serve our students.”

tabling SALT

Here’s how the Republican tax plan could threaten New York’s education funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Republican lawmakers in Washington appear poised to approve sweeping tax legislation, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed an “economic death blow” to the state.

That blow, advocates say, could punch a hole in school budgets.

Schools across New York are already shortchanged billions of dollars, according to school-funding advocates, even as the state faces a $4.4 billion budget gap. The tax plan, if approved, has the potential to divert even more state and local funding from schools.

“I’ve been dealing with the state budget for more than 30 years and this is as volatile and uncertain as anything I can recall,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The House and Senate must still combine their tax bills and pass a final version. Below is a guide to some of the worst-case scenarios for New York schools if that happens.

“Downward pressure” on local taxes

A provision of the tax plan would sharply reduce state and local tax (often called SALT) deductions a proposal that would hit high-tax states like New York hardest. The average SALT deduction in New York is $22,169, according to a report form the Governor Finance Officers Association, using data from 2015.

Advocates worry that voters whose tax burdens rise without the deductions will be less inclined to sign off on increases to their local school board budgets, which voters approve in most parts of the state. In New York City, school funding may be more insulated because residents do not vote on a budget.

However, the city could feel pressure to offset the lost SALT deductions by lowering local income taxes — a move that could shrink budgets across city agencies, including the education department.

“It stands to reason that there will be downward pressure for us to reduce our local taxes, which in turn would create less revenue for city services,” said New York City spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in an email.

Flight of the super taxpayers

A small number of super-wealthy New Yorkers help keep the state and city governments afloat.

In New York City, about 25,000 families contribute more than 40 percent of the city’s personal income-tax revenue, according to the most recent figures analyzed by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Their tax burdens could balloon without the SALT deductions, spurring a rush to lower-tax locales. While some experts said a mass exodus is highly unlikely, in a district where approximately 57 percent of school funding comes from the city budget, any significant loss of tax revenue could strike a serious blow to school funding.

“People who live on Park Avenue are not going to move to Alabama to pay lower taxes,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “But they may move to Scarsdale because they don’t have to pay a city income tax.”

A three-way “tidal wave of disaster”

Lost local revenue isn’t the only way school budgets could take a hit. In fact, it could be part of a triple whammy.

The tax plan would leave the federal government with a gaping $1.4 trillion deficit. Experts expect lawmakers may eventually plug the hole by slashing spending on healthcare and possibly other programs like education.

“It may result in lower federal funding for everything,” said George Sweeting, deputy director at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “If that happens, that would have an impact on federal funding for New York City.”

Still, school districts only get a fraction of their funding from the federal government. In New York City, federal money accounts for just 6 percent of school spending. (By contrast, 37 percent of the city’s education funds come from the state.)

However, federal spending cuts could have an indirect impact on New York’s education funding. If Washington provides less healthcare funding, for instance, New York could have to pick up the tab — creating a ripple effect, where it would have less to spend on schools.

The federal pressure would come at the same time New York is already facing a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office say the tax plan would be a blow to New York — but they also insist that Cuomo is committed to funding education.

Still, schools are staring at a “loss of federal aid, a loss of state aid, and a loss of local revenue,” Borges said. “It’s like a tidal wave of disaster.”

An under-the-radar change would cause “significant harm”

Finally, a little-noticed bond issue in the tax plan could cause New York schools pain.

Congressional Republicans would remove provisions that help schools borrow money for school construction projects, according to a letter signed by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The loss would “significantly harm districts’ finances,” it reads.

This measure would have a devastating impact on schools, school districts, local taxpayers and, most significantly, our students,” the letter continues. “That impact would be felt most dramatically by districts in poverty; in other words, the districts that would be hurt most are those that can least afford it.”

in the zone

Denver Public Schools proposes changes to how elementary school boundaries work in two areas of the city — for different reasons

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders at Whittier ECE-8 School sit in a line on the playground.

Elementary school boundaries in two different parts of Denver would change under a proposal that’s set to be among the first voted on later this month by a new school board.

It calls for students living in the Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods in far northeast Denver to be part of two new enrollment zones, and students living in Five Points, Cole, Whittier and City Park West in north-central Denver to be part of another new zone.

Enrollment zones are essentially big school boundaries with several schools inside them. Students are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily the school closest to where they live, or their first choice. That has led to complaints from some families in zones with lots of students but not many excess seats, such as the zone in the booming Stapleton neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools officials said they’ve taken into account lessons learned from the district’s 11 other zones in designing the new ones they’re proposing. Students in the new zones would have “enhanced priority” to get into the schools nearest to them.

“We’re trying to take the best of previous zones and some of the benefits of boundaries” and blend them together with this proposal, Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, told the school board at a work session Thursday.

The reasons for creating these new zones, officials said, have to do with enrollment.

The far northeast is one of the few regions of the city with vacant land ripe for developers to build more single-family houses, which are desirable commodities in Denver’s hot real estate market. One developer, CP Bedrock, is planning to build near Pena Boulevard nearly 1,800 housing units, which the district predicts will yield hundreds of new students.

About 1,100 of those units are in the boundary of just one elementary school, Lena Archuleta Elementary, which is already full with more than 500 students, Eschbacher said.

The district’s proposal is to create two enrollment zones on either side of Tower Road. Each would have three schools in it. The zone to the west of Tower Road would encompass Archuleta, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch and KIPP Northeast. The zone to the east would encompass Omar D. Blair, Highline Academy Northeast and Florida Pitt Waller.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

District planners considered redrawing the current boundaries to accommodate the new CP Bedrock development and the thousands of other new housing units planned for the area, Eschbacher said. But that wouldn’t align with the district’s philosophy that pressing families to research their options and choose the school that best fits their child will make that child more successful, nor would it leave wiggle room for any future housing development, he said.

In north-central Denver, the enrollment pressures are the exact opposite. The gentrifying neighborhoods have lost so many students that there are about 800 more elementary school seats than elementary school students living there, Eschbacher said.

The school board voted last year to shutter one low-performing school in the area, Gilpin Montessori, and not replace it due to declining enrollment. The district created a temporary enrollment zone to give Gilpin students priority this year at several nearby schools.

The proposal would create a permanent zone encompassing four schools: Whittier, Wyatt Academy, University Prep Arapahoe Street and Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

Two other schools that are physically located within the zone boundary would not be part of the zone, Eschbacher said. One school, Polaris Elementary, is the district’s magnet school for highly gifted students. The other, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, is located on a busy thoroughfare in the same building that houses the district’s headquarters.

Because of construction in the area, it would be impossible for yellow school buses to service the school, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova explained. The school is currently an all-choice charter without yellow bus service. If it were to be included in a zone, the district would have to provide transportation to zone students choosing to attend.

If the zone is created, district officials said they would re-evaluate including the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School once construction in the area is completed.

The district has in the past successfully used enrollment zones as a way to compel families to participate in school choice, and as a way to integrate schools, which has had mixed results. At Thursday’s meeting, Cordova said zones also allow for a more even distribution of students who enroll mid-year. Highly mobile students often end up at boundary schools and not at all-choice charters, she said. In a zone, all schools must reserve seats for mid-year arrivals.

“We believe in equity,” she said. “Research shows late-arrival kids … need more supports.”

All three proposed zones would feature a mix of district-run and charter schools. Because officials predict the zones will have more seats than students, Cordova said no family should feel forced to attend a type of school they don’t like. Because of that excess capacity, officials said it’s likely all zone students would get into their first-choice schools.

The seven-member school board, which includes three newly elected members, is scheduled to vote Dec. 21 on whether to create the zones. The school choice process starts in February.