Private schools, public buses

January 07, 1993

It's one thing for the government to pay tuition for students to attend private schools, but it's another to transport those children safely to their schools -- be they public or private.

That's the argument of some parents with children in Harford's 11 private schools who want the General Assembly to authorize free county school bus transportation for those pupils.

Beyond the safety issue, however, is the matter of the cost of bus transportation, estimated between $380 and $680 per pupil annually. Give us back a little bit of the property taxes we pay for public schools, as a reward for keeping our kids out of the public school system, they imply.

County finances being what they are, the Harford school system and administration are not sympathetic to such reasoning. County school bus routes are set up to maximize efficiency in transporting children to a fixed number of schools. Adding new stops and routes (buses and drivers) would take more money from a shrinking purse.

The decision to use a private school (and forgo use of the tax-paid public schools) involves parental consideration of all costs -- textbooks, teachers, uniforms, building maintenance or transportation. There's no public economic obligation to subsidize any of these private expenses.

Some private schools in Maryland have created private van or bus systems to provide group transportation that is paid for only by those who use it. That's a reasonable alternative to using the public school system buses, if safety alone is the concern.

Nevertheless, 11 counties in Maryland already authorize public bus transportation for private school students. Last year, seven counties reported that they actually used that permission, most of them with restrictions.

There is no reason Harford County should not have the same choice, to be decided in its local public forums. The county government would have to approve such programs, and allocate the local funds, even if the enabling legislation were enacted. Economic conditions may improve, the demand for this public bus service may be low and the rules may be drawn tightly enough to restrict the service.

Enactment of such a bill would not create a free ride for private school students, but would permit free discussion of the issue by Harford taxpayers who will pay for the added service. The precedent is already established. Until Harford has the right to make that choice, its citizens are deprived of another important element of self-government.

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