By Aaron Sadler
Arkansas News Bureau
When it comes to long bus rides for rural students, there are no shortcuts.
Long rides on buses are inevitable for students who live in rural areas, and there are few, if any, limits on the length of time children spend riding to and from school, transportation directors nationwide said Tuesday.
Arkansas has no such limits, though patrons of tiny Paron High School contend there should be in a lawsuit that asks a judge to bar the state from closing the school in rural Saline County. Some students in grades 6-12 face three-hour round-trip bus rides to Bryant schools next fall, and plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state maintain that excessive time on a bus would violate some students' right to equal educational opportunities under the state constitution.
Doug Eaton, director of public school facilities and transportation for Arkansas, said relocation is one option for rural residents concerned about lengthy bus rides. "If they don't like to ride the bus, move closer to the school," Eaton said in a telephone interview. Chris Heller, attorney for the Paron patrons, responded that the state Supreme Court has ruled that residence should not play a role in whether a student receives an adequate education.
"A statement like (Eaton's) is similar to saying if kids in poor Delta school districts don't like the education they're getting, they ought to move to Little Rock," Heller said. Eaton's boss, state Education Commissioner Ken James, said the issue does not have such an easy solution. "There are always going to be issues with respect to transportation," James said. "People don't live in a magic box and they never will."
The director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation said bus ride limits are almost exclusively a local issue." Sort of the industry rule of thumb is you try to limit bus rides to an hour, maximum," NAPT Director Michael Martin said. "But by the same token, in states where there are tremendously rural districts, often those times can be much longer than that."
James, a member of the sate commission on facilities and transportation, said a Department of Education study on isolated schools should help the state address the problem. The study, mandated by the Legislature last year, is expected to be finished by the 2007 legislative session.
The state Board of Education last week voted to close grades 6-12 at Paron. Just days later, Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson said he would seek "reasonable standards" for school bus rides is governor. Hutchinson's Democratic opponent, Attorney General Mike Beebe, said the isolated-schools study should offer guidelines for transportation times. The Bryant district annexed the smaller Paron district in 2004 and the Bryant School Board voted in April to close Paron High School because of financial concerns. The lawsuit against the state Board of Education, which endorsed the closure, claims long bus rides hurt academic performance.
Eaton said that claim could be extended to the point of arguing whether a Ford or Chevrolet bus is better for children. "I think anybody would be extremely, extremely hard pressed to be able to draw a parallel between a child's inability to read and write and how long they've sat on a bus," Eaton said. However, Rod McKnight of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services cited numerous studies that suggest a correlation between long bus rides and student achievement, though he said even those conclusions have conditions. "It's quick to come back and say, yeah, you may lose some educational time, but the consensus was there's not a lot people could do about it," McKnight said.
West Virginia asks school districts to limit bus rides for elementary students to 30 minutes and high schoolers to one hour, but an official there said the regulation is rarely enforced. Kansas encourages districts to limit bus rides to less than an hour. Until 1993, South Carolina required rides of no longer than one hour and 15 minutes. The regulation was removed when officials attempted to make it part of state law, said South Carolina Director of Transportation Donald Tudor. No statute was implemented, he said.
"We know our (rule) is not going to happen from time to time," said Debbie Romine, a transportation safety consultant in Kansas. "We have lots of gravel. Arkansas probably does, too, and Arkansas probably has a lot more windy roads than we do. "States surrounding Arkansas do not limit the length of school bus rides. Texas and Oklahoma officials said several bus routes in those states are longer than 90 minutes.
Even in the nation's most isolated state, Alaska, there are no restrictions on bus trip lengths. "We leave it to the local school board to determine length of ridership," said Alaska Department of Education spokesman Eddy Jean.
Plaintiffs in the Paron suit contend the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has already set a standard for bus rides of not more than 45 minutes one way. But Eaton, a former Little Rock School District official, said the federal case was related to desegregation efforts in Little Rock and should have no bearing on the Paron case.
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