Update, July 30, 2019: The school board approved this proposal.

Update, Aug. 15, 2019: The application for bus passes is open

Memphis school and transit leaders hope to offer 3,000 high school students and their parents free bus passes this fall — a proposal that originally came from students.

Shelby County Schools leaders hope the passes will encourage students to participate in after-school activities, get jobs, post higher test scores, and miss school less often.

Student advocates proposed the idea of free bus passes in December as part of a broader conversation about how the school district can cut down on suspensions and expulsions. They said having easier access to daily transportation would help reduce students’ stress, leading to fewer behavior problems.

Student advocates trained by BRIDGES recommended the district pay for student bus passes in December.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Subsidizing more students to use the city’s bus system could also increase access to the many school options available to students in Memphis. While the city has added dozens of charter schools in recent years and made it easier for students to choose different district-run schools, parents are responsible for providing transportation to schools outside of their neighborhoods. (Some charter schools provide transportation, but they are not required to do so.)

School board members are scheduled to vote on the $300,000 trial program at their meeting Tuesday. Under the plan, the district would pay $100 each for passes entitling students and a parent to unlimited rides for the entire year. (In contrast, 30-day student passes cost families $40.) While any high school student could apply, students from low-income families would have priority.

Board member Stephanie Love said she supported the program, but worried about whether the city’s bus system has enough routes that would help students.

“One of our biggest challenges is public transportation,” Love said of her Frayser neighborhood. “I just don’t want to receive a call saying, ‘I have a bus pass, but I can’t use it because there’s no bus line going to my child’s school.’”

Superintendent Joris Ray replied that he would look into how many routes have stops close to a school. The Memphis Area Transit Authority, known as MATA, was not immediately able to share with Chalkbeat how many bus stops are within sight of a school. A spokeswoman directed all program questions to Shelby County Schools until details are finalized.

Kevin Woods, who sponsored a resolution to study the feasibility of the program earlier this year, said the initiative would be an important “first step” to better public transportation in Memphis.

“Without ridership, you can’t improve the system. Without an improved system, it’s hard to get ridership,” he told fellow board members Tuesday.

Shelby County Schools students are guaranteed district transportation only if they attend their neighborhood school and live more than two miles away from that school. And the district has provided city bus passes only for students who have been expelled and are attending alternative schools.

The proposed 3,000 passes would be five times the number the district has purchased for those students in recent years, but would still allow only a fraction of the students eligible for them to get the support. There are about 30,000 high school students in the district, about three-quarters of whom live in poverty, according to district data from earlier this year.

Corey Strong, the district’s director of operational and process improvement, said the size of the program was dictated by the district’s finances.

“We were just able to earmark $300,000 in the budget. As you know, the budget this year was pretty tight,” he said. But he said a successful first year could lead to an expansion of the bus pass program in the future.

One key measure of success: how many students apply. MATA is working with the district to roll out a communication plan to parents and students on how to get a bus pass.

As one of the student leaders who proposed the bus pass idea, John Chatman said he was proud to see their advocacy efforts pay off.

“This is a great start and a great beginning for our bus passes… It’s difficult when your parents don’t have cars,” he said. “It should expand.”