Hoover Public Transportation

Hoover Public Transportation

Tiffany Ray

The Hoover City Schools in Central Alabama are no strangers to controversy. Among other things, the school system in recent years has endured a grade-changing scandal that resulted in several high-profile firings, and it has been sued by a student who was allegedly injured and arrested after falling asleep in class.[1] Now, the system is receiving national attention for its recent decision to end busing services for all but disabled students, a move that will disproportionately impact minority students.[2] The anticipated cuts have sparked criticism from some parents and community members, who have cited concerns about the decision’s potential to increase traffic as well as student tardiness and truancy.[3] Critics also worry about the safety of students who could be forced to walk long distances along busy commercial thoroughfares, or on streets with no sidewalks, and the additional burden the cuts will place on low-income families to get their kids to school.[4]

Clearly, the effects of such a decision are likely to impact Hoover as whole. However, findings that minority families may be disproportionately burdened by the loss of bus service are concerning and raise questions about what obligation public schools have to provide not only educational opportunities to children residing within their boundaries, but access to those opportunities.

Hoover has provided systemwide school bus services to students since its inception in 1988.[5] School officials claim eliminating the service, a measure approved by the school board July 15, is necessary to address funding shortfalls.[6] When it eliminates busing in the next school year, it will become one of only a handful of systems in the state that don’t provide it, and it will be the first to withdraw the service from its community.[7] Some parents have decried the decision for the burden it will place on low-income families who rely on busing to get their kids to school. Indeed, some allege that creating such a burden may be precisely the point: that eliminating bus service is a way to encourage families who would rely on such services to move elsewhere, or to discourage new low-income families from moving in.[8]

Whatever the motives of school officials in putting bus service on the chopping block in lieu of other programs or services, it certainly appears that a significant number of students will be impacted by the decision, and minority students particularly so. A local newspaper report found that nearly half of Hoover students were identified as likely bus riders next year, when the cuts take effect.[9] The report also found that 63 percent of black students in the Hoover system were likely bus riders, compared with only 44 percent of white students and about 55 percent of students categorized as “other.”[10]

The Supreme Court in its 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision laid out the notion of equal educational opportunity, saying education is “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments … it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”[11] The legislature followed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited not only intentional discrimination in programs receiving federal assistance, but also activities which unintentionally create discriminatory effects.[12] As Zachary W. Best explained in The Georgetown Law Journal, this disparate impact claim was successfully made in Lau v Nichols, where the Court found that schools discriminated by failing to provide adequate instruction to non-English-speaking students. [13] Since Lau, however, the evolution of disparate impact, with its burden-shifting framework (requiring plaintiffs to set out a prima facie case of discrimination, then offering defendants the opportunity to justify its actions on other, nondiscriminatory grounds, then returning to plaintiffs to show the defendants’ objectives are a merely a pretext for discrimination or could have been reached by other, nondiscriminatory means) has proven difficult for plaintiffs to overcome.[14] Moreover, individuals may no longer bring suit under Title VI but must funnel their claims through the U.S. Department of Education.[15]

The Supreme Court said in Washington v. Davis, the “central purpose of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is the prevention of official conduct discriminating on the basis of race.”[16] However, the Court set the standard for a showing of Equal Protection violations similarly high, saying its “cases have not embraced the proposition that a law or other official act, without regard to whether it reflects a racially discriminatory purpose, is unconstitutional solely because it has a racially disproportionate impact.”[17] Indeed, speaking of school desegregation cases, the Court said such an act “must ultimately be traced to a racially discriminatory purpose,” though it went on to add that a disproportionate impact is at least relevant to showing a Constitutional claim.[18]

Best examines the issue in light of increasingly punitive school disciplinary policies and their disproportionate impact on minority students, calling for new standards in evaluating such claims, including a requirement that school systems not only enact policies neutrally, but that they do so with the goal of equal opportunity firmly in mind.[19] Requiring systems to actively seek out equal opportunity would “disallow apathy” and would comport better than current judicial policies with the intent of Equal Protection and Title VI, Best says.

Given the increasingly restrictive judicial review of disparate effects claims, a claim that eliminating school busing services violates guarantees of equal educational opportunities would seem to face significant roadblocks. Assuming a prima facie argument could be made, the district would be required to show a nondiscriminatory purpose for the cuts, and school officials already have spoken publicly about the system’s mounting budgetary problems, its deficit spending, and the difficulty of keeping up with its ever-increasing enrollment in the face of declining revenues.[20] Although the state reimburses school systems for most (about 80 percent currently) of its transportation costs, the large Hoover system will save an estimated $2.5 million a year of its own money by eliminating busing.[21] However, that’s a tiny piece of the district’s annual budget, estimated this year at about $167 million, and it still leaves the system with a $14 million hole in its budget.[22] Officials have said they targeted bus services because they wanted to keep spending cuts “away from the classroom,” but it seems more likely that these particular cuts would keep some children – a disproportionate number of them minority students – away from school.[23] Still, public outcry over the cuts may be having some impact: Hoover’s Superintendent, Andy Craig, has said the district is devising alternatives to bus cuts.[24] Stay tuned.

[1] Jon Solomon and Erin Stock, “Political football: Hoover city, school leaders helped make coach powerful,” AL.com, Feb. 27, 2008, http://blog.al.com/bn/2008/02/political_football_hoover_city.html; Kelsey Stein, “Hoover student claims in lawsuit that she was injured, arrested after falling asleep at desk, AL.com, May 9, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/05/hoover_student_claims_in_lawsu.html.

[2] Marie Leech, “Hoover bus cuts: Minority students more likely to ride bus than white students, data show,” AL.com, Sept. 17, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/09/hoover_bus_cuts_minority_stude.html.

[3] Jon Anderson, “Hoover parents beg school officials to reverse school bus cuts at forum (photos),” AL.com, Aug. 8, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/08/hoover_parents_beg_school_offi.html; Jon Anderson, “Crowd fills Hoover school boardroom to air concerns over planned school bus cuts (photos),” AL.com, July 29, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/07/crowd_fills_hoover_school_boar.html.

[4] Anderson, Supra note 3.

[5] Marie Leech, “To bus or not to bus: Four points as Hoover eyes ending bus services,” AL.com, Sep. 3, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/09/hoover_will_become_sixth_and_b.html.

[6] Jeremy Gray, “Hoover to cut school bus service in 2014-15 school year in effort to save $2.5 million,” AL.com, July 15, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/07/hoover_to_cut_school_bus_servi.html.

[7] Leech, supra note 5.

[8] Marie Leech, “Hoover bus cuts: Minority students more likely to ride bus than white students, data show,” AL.COM, Sept. 17, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/09/hoover_bus_cuts_minority_stude.html.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Brown v. Bd. of Ed. of Topeka, Shawnee Cnty., Kan., 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954).

[12] Zachary W. Best, “Derailing the Schoolhouse-to-Jailhouse Track: Title VI and a New Approach to Disparate Impact Analysis in Public Education,” 99 Geo. L.J. 1671, 1685 (2011).

[13] Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974).

[14] Best, supra note 13.

[15] Id.

[16] 429 U.S. 229, 239 (1976).

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 240-41.

[19] Id. at 1714.

[20] Marie Leech, “To bus or not to bus: Four points as Hoover eyes ending bus services,” AL.COM, Sep. 3, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/09/hoover_will_become_sixth_and_b.html; Jon Anderson, “Hoover parents beg school officials to reverse school bus cuts at forum (photos),” AL.com, Aug. 8, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/08/hoover_parents_beg_school_offi.html.

[21] Leech, supra note 20.

[22] Marie Leech, “Hoover bus cuts: Minority students more likely to ride bus than white students, data show,” AL.COM, Sept. 17, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/09/hoover_bus_cuts_minority_stude.html.

[23] Leech, supra note 21.

[24] Anderson, supra note 20.

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