There’s this adage that applies to athletes who reminisce: “The older I get, the better I was.” A similar axiom applies to parents and schools: “The older I get, the farther I walked to school.” Ah, yes. How many of us have resorted to that propaganda? Of course, most kids don’t need long to start rolling their eyes and scoffing at the parental memories.
But the point is obvious: Walking or bicycling to school is good for more than just students. It’s good for parents, knowing their kids get more exercise. (It’s especially good for parents who lead “walking school bus” programs, which we’ll get to a little later). It’s good for teachers, knowing that physical activity promotes students’ academic performance. According to national studies, students who walk or bike to school are more punctual and behave better. And it’s good for taxpayers, knowing they don’t have to pay to transport students who walk or ride bikes.
It’s that last reason that has cash-strapped school boards looking at turning some school bus riders into walkers and bicyclists. As Howard Buck reported in the print edition of Saturday’s Columbian, the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts are among those that are considering widening the circle around schools where no school bus service is provided.
There’s a part of us that wonders why school bus service is even provided in the first place. Shouldn’t getting kids to school be the parents’ responsibility and not the taxpayers’ duty? That’s certainly the way it used to be, five miles each way, don’t you know, and uphill both ways! These days, a school bus ride is considered an entitlement. As a result, one of the biggest departments in a public school district has nothing to do with learning. It’s the transportation department.
There’s also a related part of us that wonders why the no-bus circle around a school has to be so small. In the Evergreen district, it’s one-half mile, and district officials are toying with the idea of moving it to seven-tenths of a mile. That’s a good idea. It’ll take hundreds of Evergreen kids out of school buses and save untold amounts of money. In fact, it might make good sense to push that circle out another three-tenths of a mile, to a full mile. That would require two miles of round-trip walking per kid per day, eminently sensible as childhood obesity rates continue to soar. A reasonable hiking pace is 3 mph, which is 20 minutes per mile. Let’s add about 10 minutes each trip for understandable childhood lollygaggin’ and that comes out to an hour of exercise per day.
The paramount concern, of course, is safety. There is no room for compromise in this area, and that’s why educators are taking a long time to study the issue. A good source of information for them and for parents and taxpayers is the Washington Safe Routes to School program: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/localprograms/saferoutes. And we know there will be many parents who will need to have their situations reviewed and resolved on a case-by-case basis.
But there’s plenty of room for innovation. For example, Washington and Sacajawea elementary schools in the Vancouver district and Battle Ground’s Daybreak Primary School have “walking school bus” programs where parents help kids walk to school, with organized routes and safety-in-numbers protection. Some parents say leading the group is a great way to lose weight.
Local school officials should continue their research toward reducing bus service. Half a mile just seems too close.
Here’s one point worthy of universal agreement: Hardly anyone would argue that we’re busing too few students to school. So, that means we’re probably busing too many. With kids getting fatter and school budgets getting thinner, the solution seems rather obvious.