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Free bus passes for all high school students? A Memphis school board member wants to make that a reality.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority is funded by the City of Memphis
The Memphis Area Transit Authority is funded by the City of Memphis
Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal

A Shelby County Schools board member is proposing that all high school students in the district get free city bus passes, worth $40 per month each.

Kevin Woods presented a draft resolution at a board meeting Wednesday and cited student recommendations on how to reduce suspensions and expulsions in the district. Students said the passes would help them get to and from school on time and also to jobs and after-school programs, Chalkbeat reported last month. The students said when they have a reliable way to get around, lower levels of stress helps curb behavior problems.

The advocacy organization BRIDGES helped train local students to advocate for their needs, and free transportation was one of four recommendations from students to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

“If we believe that transportation can be a challenge to our students and [that passes would] reduce absenteeism … we should look at the feasibility,” Woods said. He said the bus passes would also be helpful in the summer so students can access libraries and community centers.

“I think it’s outstanding,” said board member Michelle Robinson McKissack, whose own son uses the city bus to get to and from school when she can’t get there.

School board member Kevin Woods, center
School board member Kevin Woods, center
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Parents often cite transportation as significant barrier to sending their children to the school of their choice. This is especially true in low-income neighborhoods, where parents often work inflexible schedules that may conflict with school start and dismissal times. These families also tend to have fewer cars per household, and less disposable income to spend on transportation.

The district already provides buses for students who attend their zoned neighborhood school and live more than two miles from that school. But many families opt to participate in open enrollment, which allows students to attend any district school where there is room for them. Some, but not all, charter schools bus students from across the city.

The district also pays for bus passes for students attending alternative schools after being expelled, but it’s unclear if a boost in ridership would provide the funding needed to make the city’s bus system more efficient.

The city’s public transportation system, Memphis Area Transit Authority, has had problems with its bus routes and timeliness, and is a source of frequent rider complaints. A recent 11th-hour infusion of cash from the City of Memphis saved the transportation system from having to cut routes, and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris has called for more funding. Memphis ranks in the bottom third of large cities in per capita public transit ridership.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has a similar program for its high school students. Student identification cards serve as their bus passes that are paid for by Tennessee’s second largest district.

Woods’ resolution calls for Shelby County Schools staff to explore the proposal’s potential costs to the district and how to let high school students know how to use the bus system. He plans to fine-tune the resolution for a school board vote at the end of February.

A city bus system spokeswoman said it was too early in the process to provide comment on the proposal.

This story has been updated to include information about a similar program in Nashville.

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