Post-Katrina New Orleans has played host to what’s been called America’s “largest experiment in school choice”—a massive conversion from a conventional public school system to one based on charters. The early returns are encouraging (if incomplete), with test scores and graduation rates on the rise. But whatever its effect on education, school reform in New Orleans has had a decidedly negative impact on another area of city life: public transportation.
The centralized Orleans Parish School Board handled school transportation before the storm. While many students walked or rode yellow buses, those who attended a school outside their home zone received passes from the Regional Transit Authority, which governs public transit in the city. Transit-riding students were no trivial group, amounting to “almost half the total student body by the time the storm hit,” according to The Times-Picayune.
An RTA system map from 2005 lists 16 “school days only” routes—buses that operated in limited morning and afternoon windows, primarily for students but open to the entire public:
The arrangement benefited all of New Orleans, says Flozell Daniels Jr., an RTA board member and president and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana, a community advocacy group. By purchasing bus tickets for students, the school system helped RTA supply services that it otherwise would not have been able to afford, and that overlapped with morning rush-hour commuter needs. The result was better mobility for the city, more fares for the system, and greater stability for the agency.
“That gave us a much more consistent and reliable revenue source we could then plan around,” says Daniels. “Because there was scale there—thousands of young people—it allowed for more transit services when people were also trying to get to work.”
But school reform effectively brought an end to these partnerships. Without a centralized school authority to deal with, the RTA has struggled to restore the previous student services. Instead, says Daniels, the charters each provide their own transportation—with many “spending a fortune” on yellow buses. “We have all these autonomous, independent schools, and most of them have not been interested in trying to come back and renegotiate,” he says.
RTA has come under fire in recent years for failing to get the city’s transit system back to its pre-Katrina performance levels. A recent analysis from local advocacy group Ride New Orleans found that less than half of all service has returned since the storm—with just 35 percent of bus service restored. Ride New Orleans also found the agency’s finances to be in a precarious spot, with its operating budget plummeting from $143 million in 2004 to $88 million in 2013.
School partnerships alone won’t close that gap. A state audit from before the storm shows that RTA received about $2 million from the Orleans Parish School Board in both 2003 and 2004—a modest figure, though one that doesn’t reflect any non-student fare revenue generated by the extra routes.
Daniels says RTA is preparing to open up a public conversation about a long-term strategic plan, which he expects will address not just what the city’s transit system should look like but also how it can be financed. With state and federal funding so tough to secure, and any mention of fare hikes such a touchy subject, local partnerships—whether with the government, the private sector, or schools—will be a critical part of the discussion. To that end, he says, RTA has reengaged with the school system, a “very recent” overture that’s hasn’t yet been returned.
“We want to create partnerships that generate transit opportunities for those partners in exchange for them being bigger financial supporters of the system,” he says. “There is no other way to get this work done.”