There’s little argument that the Barrow County School System botched its handling of a proposal to cut its bus service to some 550 middle and high school students living close to their schools. There was no clear communication from the school to the affected families and no communications to local law enforcement officials about the changes. It was confusing. With school set to start this week, the board of education last week reversed course on that plan and will provide bus transportation as it had in the past. Now, however, the system will have to come up with $350,000 to pay for that, money the BCSS doesn’t have.

The larger issue in all of this, however, is not that just the school system screwed up, but rather than we as a society expect it to cater to our every whim. If you want to see where America is headed, just look at the structure of public education in the country and the expectations we as a society have come to demand from it. There is no larger system of paternalism in America than its public education institutions.

We now have public Pre-K programs that are supposed to “prepare” youngsters for kindergarten, but in reality are little more than free childcare. Public schools are expected to pick children up in the mornings in a bus, take them to school, provide them with a free or cheap breakfast, check their physical, psychological and social needs and provide services for those, educate all children to be scholars, provide them with a happy and healthy lunch, give them special tutoring, babysit them in the after school hours or provide a long list of after school activities, and then give them a ride home in the afternoons.

And we want all of that with lower taxes.

The truth is, many parents look at schools as little more than tax-funded childcare. When schools close due to snow, many parents whine, “What am I going to do with my children?” When the Barrow County School System changed its school start times this year, some parents whined, “But I have to leave for work early, who will take care of my children?”

So it should have been no surprise to BCSS officials that any plan to reduce bus service would be met with the same kind of whining response. A lot of parents expect their child’s school to cater to their schedules, not the other way around.

But the fundamental question here is: Why should schools provide transportation at all? The use of school buses came into widespread use in rural areas during the Depression when cars were few. That isn’t the case today.

The BCSS spends over $5 million a year out of a $90 million budget to transport students. The 550 students who would have been affected by the system’s proposed bussing cuts are now going to cost taxpayers over $600 each this year so the parents of those kids don’t have to do it themselves.

So why not charge parents who demand bussing service a fee to cover the costs? Is it really the responsibility of taxpayers to provide transportation for families who don’t want to provide their own?

But if parents have become spoiled by this kind of thing, public schools have nobody to blame but themselves. For decades, public education leaders have oversold what they could do. They have portrayed public education as the solution to all of society’s problems and flaws. Any issue you want to discuss — race relations, child hunger, psychological problems, teen sex — school leaders have promised to deliver a solution.

Add to that, the mentality of many urban school officials has been that children are better off being “raised” by the school than by their own families. That’s probably true in some places, but the paternalistic attitude behind that view has infected public education into thinking it is superior to families in general. It isn’t.

Public school leaders are also to blame for the problems in the recent bus debate because most school systems have detached the building of new schools from being community-based institutions. Instead, school systems go out and buy rural farmland and locate schools away from established communities. But those rural areas have no sidewalks or other infrastructure to accommodate those new schools.

If school leaders want kids to be able to walk or bike to school, then they should build schools in established communities rather than in John’s cow pasture. That’s true in Barrow County, too.

It is this kind of top-down, paternalistic decision-making that has hurt the image of many public schools. A recent Journal online survey showed that some 56 percent of those responding had a “somewhat” or “very” negative view of the BCSS. Only 26 percent had a positive view of the system. That is very troubling, but not too surprising.

But if schools have invited problems, parents have welcomed the paternalism. If a parent chooses to live so far away from work that he can’t transport his child to or from school, then that problem should be on the parent to resolve, not the school system. In this era where cars are ubiquitous, there is no reason more parents shouldn’t take their children to school or form carpools. (Charge $1,000 a year for school bus service and see how quickly parents adapt.)

But it is the one-dimensional attitude of some parents that really chafes. Parents complained very loudly about the BCSS’ bussing changes not because it affected the quality of education of their child’s school, but because it would have been inconvenient for them to arrange an alternative. Yet not a single parent — not one — spoke at the school board meeting to demand the BCSS fix its ongoing problem of embarrassingly weak math instruction in the local high schools.

What does that say about parental priorities? Are we really interested in a quality education, or do we just want public schools to be a cradle-to-age-18 bussing and babysitting service?

Although the BCSS didn’t handle the bus issue well, the underlying problem really isn’t the system’s fault. More state funding cuts in addition to the collapse of the local tax digest has devastated the system’s revenues.

In proposing to cut nearby bus service, BCSS leaders were trying to cut expenses without making further cuts to school instruction, which has already been cut down this year to 160 days. In this funding crisis, leaders tried to pick cuts they thought wouldn’t impact instruction and for that, they cannot be faulted. It is very common in many school districts for parents who live within a mile or two of the school to provide their own transportation. What the BCSS proposed was not unheard of.

The reality is that school systems are changing what they do in response to the economic crisis, just like businesses have had to change. No institution is exempt from the economic downturn. We cannot expect the BCSS to spend money it doesn’t have and we cannot demand schools provide services for free when there is less money available.

Now the question is, what will the BCSS have to cut in order to make up that $350,000 being spent on bussing?

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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