TOMAH, Wis. – Wisconsin school districts obviously don’t like to lose students to neighboring districts under the state’s “open enrollment” school choice program.
One Wisconsin district seems to be fighting that trend by blocking transportation options for children who transfer.
The Tomah school board recently rejected a request by the Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton school district to allow school buses to enter the Tomah district to transport students to N-O-W schools.
Other Wisconsin districts have the same sort of policies, keeping out-of-district school buses off their streets, according to one Tomah school board member.
Under state law, school districts must give permission before buses from another district can pick up or drop off students in their area. So the Tomah board clearly has a legal right to prevent transferred students from receiving bus transportation.
But for those who believe that public schools exist to benefit students, and their interests should be the first priority, such a move seems to violate the spirit of school choice.
“The way the law is written (allowing districts to ban bus transportation) allows them to discourage parents who want to open enroll their children,” said Libby Sobic, associate counsel for education law and policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.
“It clearly undermines parents’ ability to choose the best school for their kids. It could really discourage a parent from enrolling children in a school that might be a better fit for a child.”
Tomah school district officials defended their position, regardless if it makes it more difficult for children to attend schools of their choice.
“We’re losing the foundation of what it means to have a school district,” Tomah school board member Nancy McCoy told the LaCrosse Tribune. “Anything we can do to fight that degradation is important.”
Tomah school superintendent Cindy Zahrte seemed to frame the issue in terms of having too many school buses on the streets of her district.
“It’s very important that we maintain the integrity of the boundaries of our school district,” Zahrte said, according to the Tribune “If you allow a bus to come in one mile, then why not two miles? And then it becomes six miles, and before you know it, you have buses all over the place.”
Tomah school board member John McMullen told EAGnews that many school districts have similar policies keeping neighboring districts’ buses out of their territory.
“I would point out it’s consistent with what all the school districts do,” McMullen said. “All the families are allowed to use open enrollment, but transportation is the responsibility of families. That’s the way it works.
“All the districts have been very reluctant to have a situation where they have school buses going all over the place, creating confusion about where they are going and what districts they’re in.”
McMullen also said school districts have been struggling to plan their budgets since a change in state law allowed students to transfer under the open enrollment program at any time. In the past there was a defined period of time when students could transfer.
With students leaving in the middle of the school year – and taking their share of state aid with them – it’s hard for districts to determine how much money they will have at any given time, McMullen said.
In short, it’s not in a school’s budgetary interest to make it easier for students to leave through the open enrollment program. And allowing competing districts to offer bus transportation would definitely make it easier.
“The budget is tied to how many students we have,” McMullen said. “It’s not so much about keeping the money. It’s about trying to figure out what the budget is.”