Chicago Public Schools won’t bus general education students for the rest of the school year

A school bus passes by Haugan Elementary School in Chicago on a Monday morning on Dec. 18, 2023. (Laura McDermott for Chalkbeat)

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Chicago Public Schools won’t provide busing to general education students for the rest of the school year, officials said Thursday.

In a letter to parents, the district said a driver shortage persists and is preventing it from providing busing to general education students — largely those in magnet and selective enrollment programs. The district will continue to provide free CTA cards, valued at $35, to those roughly 5,500 families; about one-third of those children are using the passes, according to a CPS spokesperson.

“We fully understand how frustrating this news will be for many of our families, and sincerely empathize with the challenges and inconvenience that this situation has caused,” the letter said.

The update comes after the district announced in late September that it couldn’t provide busing to general education students this semester but would share an update with families before winter break regarding the second half of the school year. In November, the district cast doubt that it would be able to expand bus service this year.

Citing a driver shortage, the district announced in late July that it would limit busing to students with disabilities whose Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, call for transportation, as well as students who are homeless. Both student groups are legally entitled to transportation — and the district is on state watch to improve commute times for students with disabilities.

The district left open the possibility that general education students could get busing later in the year.

The district is currently busing 8,133 students with disabilities and another 146 students who are homeless, according to a CPS spokesperson.

Thursday’s busing update comes a week after the school board passed a resolution saying it wants to bolster neighborhood schools and move away from a system of choice where families travel outside their neighborhood for school. Asked if the district’s desire to move away from school choice informed their decision to sever busing for general education students, a spokesperson said the district is following state law and board policy by prioritizing students with disabilities for transportation.

Parents of children in selective enrollment and magnet programs have repeatedly shared frustrations with the Board of Education about the difficulties they’ve faced without busing to schools that are far from their homes, including difficulties balancing the school commute with their work schedules. Some parents have transferred their children to other schools.

Aria Haque, a sixth grader at Keller Regional Gifted Center in Mt. Greenwood, lives 20 miles from her school, and transferred to her neighborhood school after “so many hurdles and almost no time” to figure out the commute, Haque told the board at its meeting earlier this month. Her new school, however, was teaching material she said she’d learned two years ago.

Haque decided to re-enroll at Keller “even with the killer commute.” Her father now drives Aria and another Keller student whose family doesn’t have a car and lives 15 miles away from the school.

“That has been our routine ever since: An hour-and-a-half on the road for me, which isn’t bad, but over three hours for my dad, which is horrible,” Haque said.

Natasha Haque, Aria’s mother, said she’s been advocating with a group of parents to get busing reinstated for general education students in magnet and selective enrollment schools. She worries that students from low-income families at Aria’s school, Keller, will lose out on the chance to attend a great school. Roughly a third of Keller’s students were from low-income families last year.

“If the message to families is: ‘You cannot rely on us to transport your child to a selective enrollment school,’ it’s the lower income families that will be the first to say, ‘Yeah, I cannot afford to take my child to school. I cannot quit my job,’” Natasha Haque said Thursday after the letter to parents was sent out.

Limited busing has also helped the district comply with a state corrective action plan to keep commutes under an hour each way for students with disabilities. Last school year, about 3,000 students with disabilities were on routes longer than an hour. As of October, the district was busing an average of 7 students with disabilities per route, a Chalkbeat analysis found.

Commute times had improved this year as the district has limited busing, but have worsened in recent months: In August, 47 students with disabilities were on routes longer than an hour; that’s grown to 111 students as of Thursday, a slight dip from late November, according to the district.

CPS said another 115 students with disabilities are in the process of getting bus routes. The district has received 4,649 requests since the start of the school year, close to 900 more requests than last year. It is also continuing to hold job fairs to hire more bus drivers.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.

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