Should Arizona homeschoolers be allowed to ride public school buses?

(Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

When Lucy Digrazia passed by the electronic freeway sign reading “High Pollution Advisory: Carpool – Use Bus,” her frustration started to sink in.

She was driving next to a public school bus heading to the same place she was. A bus her daughter wasn’t allowed to ride. A bus that was nearly empty.

“It's a common-sense issue,” Digrazia said. “You've got a bus. I live in Scottsdale. I pay taxes. [They’re] constantly raising our taxes in Scottsdale for the schools and yet I can't catch a ride on an empty bus?”

School choice advocates at the state Capitol are now trying to address the very situation in which Digrazia finds herself.

Digrazia’s daughter attends the East Valley Institute of Technology campus in Mesa. All high school students at EVIT have a split schedule; they take technical classes at one of the two EVIT campuses and their core academic classes at their home high school.

Students must live in one of EVIT’s 10 partner public school districts to attend, and for those who attend a public high school, the “sending district” provides bus transportation. Charter school students who live in these districts may also attend EVIT.

EVIT does not provide buses to and from its various partner districts, which stretch from Fountain Hills to Queen Creek and east to Apache Junction.

Digrazia would like to send her daughter to and from EVIT's Mesa campus on a public school bus. But her daughter is homeschooled. The district in which she lives, Scottsdale Unified, says it cannot accommodate her on one of its buses bound to EVIT unless she is enrolled in SUSD.

“Let's not punish each other because we've decided to educate our children in different ways,” she said. “I have not asked for anything extra. I have not asked for them to come to my house or add an extra bus stop.”

School choice advocates point out that homeschooled students can participate in athletics at public high schools, and when they do, they can ride in district transportation.

However, SUSD says it cannot allow Digrazia’s daughter to ride on one of its buses due to liability issues.

According to district policy, “Transportation of students is a privilege extended to students in the District. Student transportation is not a statutory requirement except for students with disabilities.”

Arizona’s Family reached out to Mesa Public Schools and Tempe Union High School. Both districts said they had similar general policies on busing, although district spokespeople said they had never encountered and evaluated a case such as Digrazia’s.

Digrazia offered to sign liability waivers; SUSD declined.

“The District believes a waiver would not be sufficient to protect the district from liability,” said Erin Helm.

Digrazia also offered to enroll her daughter at SUSD, but continue educating her at home.

Helm noted that in some cases that is permissible, such as when a student “has certain medical needs or meets other approved criteria,” but she said it would not be acceptable in this case.

“Enrolled students must attend school, or the District would be in violation of attendance laws that regulate funding based on student count,” she said.

Although Digrazia was unaware of it, school choice advocates in the state capitol introduced a new bill this session that addresses this very issue.

HB 2341, sponsored by state Representative Rusty Bowers and others, would require school districts to accommodate homeschooled students on buses to and from joint technical schools like EVIT with certain limitations.

Under the bill, the district is not obligated to change its bus routes or add bus stops. There must be enough room for the homeschool student on the bus. Kids can be banned for bad behavior. And the district operating the buses must be reimbursed for any new fuel, staff or equipment costs.

The law does not specify who would pay that reimbursement; it leaves the matter up to contracts between the technical school and the bus-operating district.

Digrazia said she would have liked her issue resolved without new legislation, but she applauds the effort.

“Arizona is just a marvelous state for homeschooling and parent’s rights and I applaud everybody who is involved in this bill,” she said.

For now, she says she’ll be stuck in traffic each afternoon. Next to a mostly empty school bus.

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Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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