Commuting, Though Resource-Heavy, Allows Poor Children to Escape Failing Schools

School bus

Low-income students do have commuting options to help them get to better schools, but those options come with a price.
Image: Shutterstock

According to a recent study by sociologist Julia Burdick-Will of Johns Hopkins University, low-income neighborhoods do not trap children in poorly-performing schools. There has long been an assumption that, as median income in a neighborhood drops, local schools decrease in quality, effectively trapping already disadvantaged children there. Burdick-Will’s research shows that those children are in fact much more likely to commute further for school than are more affluent children.

As more school choices become available for children in cities like Chicago, poor children benefit more from those choices than do affluent children–up to a point, anyway. By having the opportunity to attend charter schools, those with open enrollment or those that are under-enrolled, low-income children have the opportunity to attend “better” schools at the cost of commuting longer distances.

Burdick-Will found that affluent children in Chicago rarely travelled more than a mile and a half or so to school, while some children from lower-income neighborhoods travelled up to 6 miles to get to school.

This is still problematic, because even though poor children aren’t inherently trapped in failing schools, they have to expend greater energy and money to get to better schools. Some of those kids might have to spend significant time commuting across town to get to school, which costs money and, in some locations, is exceedingly difficult. In cities like Chicago, Seattle, or New York, which have reasonably well-developed mass transit systems (by American standards), that commute is easier than in a city like Detroit, which has minimal mass transit. The whole process is worse for children in suburban environments, where mass transit simply might not exist, or if it does, may not serve those children well.

So in order for low-income children to receive a better education, they or their parents have to expend more resources to get to school, resources like time and money that are already tight. Choice is usually seen as a function of privilege, but in these cases, while choice does allow for a better education, it can make that education difficult to come by.

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