In offering city bus passes to district students, Indianapolis Public Schools is taking a page from the city’s charter sector, which is increasingly leaning on IndyGo to get students to school at a reasonable price.
Unlike traditional public school districts, charter schools don’t receive local funding for school buses. But their existence — and their mission — depends on students being able to get to school, so about two-thirds of Indianapolis charter schools provide some form of transportation support.
In a few cases, that comes in the form of yellow-bus routes — available at no cost to certain schools in the district’s innovation network, a model in which IPS partners with charter and nonprofit operators outside the district. But those same buses come at a considerable expense for other city charter schools, some of which argue they don’t receive enough funding despite seeing an increase in state grants this year.
To keep their dollars closer to the classroom, as Indianapolis has improved its transportation infrastructure as part of a plan to increase transit service 70% by 2021, charter schools are more often buying bus passes for their students.
That’s how Daisha Lasley, a 15-year-old sophomore at Purdue Polytechnic High School, gets to school. She lives on Indianapolis’ far east side, about a 20-minute ride to her school’s space inside Circle Centre Mall by car — if only she were able to get a ride. Her parents both work nights and often need to rest when she needs to get to school.
So instead Lasley uses the bus pass that her school paid for to take an hour-long city bus ride, beginning each morning at 6:52 a.m. The experience can be grueling, but she says it’s more than worth it for the chance to attend the school that’s best for her and her dream of working in cybersecurity.
“My mom can’t always get to where I am,” Lasley said. “It would be hard for me to find a way home.”
When it opened in fall 2017, Purdue Polytechnic was the first city charter school to initiate a formal contract with IndyGo. Administrators work with IndyGo officials to integrate year-round bus passes into student IDs that can be used at any time the student is enrolled.
“Working at the administrative level really helps us implement programs and communicate directly with students,” said Lauren Day, a spokesperson for IndyGo. “They can have us on-site for back-to-school nights and convocations, and we can be around to provide safety training.”
The decision to build a relationship with IndyGo has saved Purdue Polytechnic hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Because the school is in the innovation network — which allows IPS to claim enrollment and performance data from the charter schools for itself — officials could have purchased yellow-bus service through the district. But Scott Bess, the school’s chief, said it would have cost close to $300,000 in the first year.
IndyGo, on the other hand, could secure unlimited bus passes for the school’s 260 students for about $62,400.
Because charter schools don’t benefit from local property taxes, the state gives them an extra $750 per student to help offset costs such as transportation and construction. But charter advocates say that’s still less than what public school districts receive.
IndyGo has proven to be a cost-effective way to provide a critical service for some charter school leaders, and more schools are joining in as the public transit provider rolls out rapid-transit buses and other amenities. About a third of city charter schools, including some in the IPS innovation network, partner with IndyGo in some form — usually by buying bus passes for students who need them. The majority are traditional high schools or adult high schools, like area Excel Centers managed by Goodwill Industries.
For instance, Herron and Riverside High Schools — also innovation schools — provide the passes at no cost to any students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, a federal measure for poverty, and order passes for other interested students at a lower cost, according to the schools’ student handbook. A spokeswoman said the school is in discussions to introduce unlimited bus passes for all students, mirroring the IPS model.
And at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, an independent charter school on the city’s near west side, nearly half of students request free public bus passes, according to Principal Christina Lear.
The school is looking at providing unlimited bus passes, too. But with some students, particularly a growing number from the east side, spending up to two hours a day on city buses, officials said they also plan to purchase a private bus service to help mitigate long commutes.
That issue has kept some charter school operators from leaning on IndyGo. While several high-profile efforts to expand IndyGo’s routes are in the works — including the Red Line through the center of Indianapolis and the Purple Line to Lawrence — not all routes are effective in connecting a student to their school of choice.
“There are a lot of places where you just can’t get from here to there,” said Carey Dahncke, head of schools for Christel House Academies, one of the city’s oldest charter school networks.
The Christel House network plans to spend $605,000 on student transportation this year, mostly on its private bus services, although the network also subsidizes IndyGo passes for interested students. Dahncke said he’d be happy to see the situation change — if IndyGo’s promised improvements pan out.
“If you took all of that money that’s being spent on school transportation, as well as all the money that’s being spent on IndyGo, and you had a common platform or a common system to get all kids to school and to get their parents transported wherever they might need to be, I think our city would be much better off,” he said.
For Lasley, using IndyGo brings an array of personal benefits, even though yellow-bus service might have yielded a shorter ride. With a pass available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she can more easily get to volleyball practice and explore the city in her free time. And she doesn’t have to worry about missing a single chance to get to school: If she’s too late for the IndyGo bus she would ideally take, another one will come 30 minutes later.
“I prefer it this way,” she said. “I feel like I’m in control.”