Buses again aren’t guaranteed for CPS general education students next year, officials say

Selective enrollment and magnet school students hoping to get back on yellow buses are unlikely to find any relief next fall, Chicago Public Schools officials said Thursday.

A bus driver shortage that has plagued school districts nationwide since the COVID-19 pandemic has persisted and forced officials to prioritize special education and homeless students as required by law.

That has meant about 5,500 general education kids who attend selective and magnet elementary schools outside their neighborhood have been left off buses this year, frustrating families who had relied on that transportation.

CPS said that will likely continue to be the case next school year. Elementary school kids who applied to selective and magnet programs are due to get their offers Friday but will have to decide whether they can get to those schools on their own. The acceptance deadline has been pushed back a week to 5 p.m. April 19.

"We must continue to prioritize our [homeless] students and students with diverse learning needs," CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at Thursday’s monthly Board of Education meeting. "As a result, we are making families of general education students [aware] that bus transportation may not be possible for their children next school year. But we will continue to explore all options, including expanding pickup locations, adjusting bell times and finding creative ways to attract more drivers."

A group of general education parents has been attending school board meetings for months, calling on CPS to either find a solution to get their kids back on buses or to provide a stipend for alternative transportation like the district did in 2021. They sent a letter to CPS officials this week signed by 26 alderpersons that demanded changes, including prioritizing busing for students from low-income families at these schools.

"Given that 85% of the students without transportation come from low-income families, many cannot afford to pay for private transportation, nor should they be expected to do so," the parents wrote in the letter. "Many families also do not have the job flexibility that enables them to drive their children to and from school. This money would be a much-needed lifeline for thousands of Chicago students."

CPS is taking 8,749 mostly special-education students to school on buses and giving $500 monthly stipends to 3,700 special-ed families to pay for alternative transportation, officials said. Improvements to the transportation system have left about 130 students with disabilities on bus routes for more than an hour, down from almost 3,000 kids last year. Federal law requires school districts to bus special education students to schools, and Illinois law requires those routes to be less than 60 minutes.

But the district said in a statement that "offering stipends to general education families is not sustainable for CPS," particularly with a $391 million budget deficit next school year that state officials do not appear ready to help address. Families can instead get prepaid public transportation cards — 1,926 students have taken that option — but some parents have said those aren’t helpful for their young children.

Parents of general education students have also suggested transportation hubs around the city where buses could pick up their kids. CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said officials have explored that option but "faced logistical and equity issues that made addressing this suggestion a challenge.

"Hubs would work for some but not all routes, thus not serving all families and schools in an equitable manner, but, again, we will continue to explore all options for the coming school year," she said.

The district said it has been trying to hire more bus drivers by raising the hourly wage to between $22 and $27, advertising job openings on billboards, social media and CTA buses and trains, and hosting job fairs.

Officials are also seeking waivers to some requirements that they said have made hiring difficult, like one that requires bus drivers to pass a mechanical test by physically lifting the hood of a bus to identify engine parts — strength and skills that could be unnecessary if mechanics are called to address engine problems. CPS said some other districts and states have secured those waivers.