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In Vista Unified, More School Choice Means More Traffic

Cars wait in traffic at Mission Vista High School in Oceanside, Jan. 11, 2018.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: Cars wait in traffic at Mission Vista High School in Oceanside, Jan. 11, 2018.

It’s a few minutes past 7 a.m. when Lonna Leghart pulls her hybrid sport utility vehicle out of the driveway. She worries it’s a few minutes too late.

“All right, let’s do this boys,” she said. “Everybody buckled?”

It’s her day to make the seven-mile trek north to Mission Vista High School. Her son and four other teens in the neighborhood won spots at the school through a lottery, so they aren’t going to the school nearby.

They aren’t the only ones. Several years ago, Vista Unified grew its magnet program, which allows students to leave their neighborhood school to take advantage of specialized curriculum elsewhere in the district. If they can’t get into a magnet school, they can enroll in the school they believe is next best.

But like many districts, Vista Unified has dramatically scaled back busing. So, with more choice has come more cars.

Video by Katie Schoolov

RELATED: Once Used To Integrate Schools, Magnets May Be Creating Divisions In Vista

“I sat at the corner just outside (Mission Vista) at the beginning of the school year and I counted 586 cars coming out — and that wasn’t even the whole traffic period,” said Leghart, whose 20-minute commute can become 45 minutes if she doesn’t get the timing just right.

Now the district is considering a $1.2 million plan to restore some bus routes as it comes to terms with the unintended social and environmental consequences of school choice.

The Environmental Toll

Leghart petitioned the district last year to bring back busing, but not just because of the stressful commute.

“The bigger concern for me is the environment,” she said. “If we could get all of the parents off the road and get our kids on energy-efficient buses, that would be a step in the right direction in terms of cutting down on the amount of idling that we do and the wasted fossil fuels.”

Leghart, whom the district recruited to be on its transportation committee last year, isn’t alone in worrying about the carbon emissions associated with school commutes. Recently, San Diego land-use consultant Gary London wrote in an op-ed for Voice of San Diego that “this never-ending spiral of moving around children cannot be the answer” to equity issues in schools because it takes too large a toll on the environment. Many see school choice as a way to extend opportunities to disadvantaged students.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher said on Twitter, “I wonder if we enforced neighborhood school boundaries in CA (sic) if traffic and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced. (sic) Not making a legislative suggestion, just a real question.”

The Environmental Protection Agency asked the same question in Atlanta in 2008. It found if a student took a seven-mile trip like Leghart’s alone, his or her vehicle would emit nine times more carbon per capita than a bus carrying dozens of children. If a parent and child took the trip together, their car would emit six times more than the bus.

Another study, found a St. Paul, Minnesota, school choice policy similar to Vista’s increased miles driven in the city by 350,000 miles in 2007.

In Vista, idling cars may also be a problem. Many of the schools were built with just one driveway, clogging the roads that lead to them as parents drop off their kids.

“When they built the schools they weren’t really planning on people driving,” said Jack Larimer, who runs the Vista Historical Society and previously worked in the City of Vista planning department.

Equity And Access

But Vista Superintendent Linda Kimble said the move to restore some busing is driven more by concerns about access and safety.

She recently walked to school with families who live more than 1.5 miles from their children’s school. She learned many students outside of the city’s core walked on roads without sidewalks. Vista developed in the 1920s as an agricultural community. Some of its schools are still named after ranches from the era.

“Where there’s no sub-divisions, the roads are basically wider versions of what they have always been,” Larimer said.

The district recently pulled data to learn how many families are in similar situations and found 750 middle and elementary school students would benefit from new school buses.

The other piece is equity. Districts are obligated to ensure all students can reasonably get to school. When school choice initiatives are involved, transportation becomes all the more important because it levels the playing field.

A recent KPBS and inewsource analysis found white, more affluent children were disproportionately represented in Vista’s magnet schools, in part, because they had transportation to the schools from other parts of Vista. Meanwhile, many low-income and Latino students had to rely on a North County Transit District bus to get to school.

Defending School Choice

According to the plan going before the board Thursday, each of the seven new bus routes would cost $75,000 a year. That’s not including the estimated $500,000 the district would pay each of the next five years to purchase new buses.

Kyle Ruggles runs Vista’s magnet program and said he’d rather address the consequences than scrap the whole program. When managed properly, magnets and other school choice options such as charter schools can accelerate academic growth, especially for children in low-income communities who may be assigned to low-performing schools.

“Providing options for students has been the best thing we’ve tried to do here in Vista — making sure that there are opportunities for students and parents across our district,” Ruggles said.

If passed, the busing plan would not benefit high school students. But Leghart said having her son attend Mission Vista is worth the drive. She’s just looking forward to there one day being fewer families to share the road with.

As more Vista families choose schools farther from home, they’re spending more time on the road. Some are worried about the social and environmental consequences.

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