Free school bus scheme biased: report

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The ACT Government’s free bus travel scheme discriminates against some students and will destabilise government schools, leading to some closures, according to an Australia Institute report.

Given to The Canberra Times two days before the scheme swings into action, the report slams the pre-election policy as money-wasting and biased towards richer families.

Commissioned by the ACT branch of the Australian Education Union, it said the Government had likely underestimated the yearly costs of $4.5 million. Working from the NSW scheme, which the ACT scheme is modeled on, ACT costs were estimated to reach $6.4 million by the end of the decade.

The free bus scheme was announced as part of the ACT Government’s May Budget, and begins on Monday. Around 17,000 students have passes already, with more to come from late applications. Students qualify for a pass if they live 1.6km from their school, or 2km from school for older students.

The report, Free School Buses, Who Gains Who Loses said the NSW scheme had been plagued by costs blow-outs. In place since the 1970s, it cost $402 million now, and was estimated to cost $450 million yearly by 2005-6. Similar pressures were likely to drive costs up in the ACT. Among these were:

– Demands for broadening of the scheme, so more were eligible.
– Calls for more flexible timetables for after-school activities and shorter travel times.
– Calls for safer and more comfortable services with seat-belts and airconditioning.
– The continuing drift from public to private schooling, increasing the number of eligible students.

The report said that in the long term the policy would encourage greater enrollments in out-of-area schools. That could lead to the closure of some government schools.

This contradicted the social capital objectives articulated by the Government in recent years, and ran directly counter to the planning principles that had underpinned Canberra’s development.

“Planners have long accepted that schools, especially primary schools, should be starting points in planning and developing cities, and no where has this principle been pursued so deliberately than in the development of Canberra,” the report said. Under current guidelines government schools must be centrally located in communities, close to other facilities like child and health services, and pre-schools.

The report said that 58 per cent of private school students would be eligible for the scheme, compared with 42 per cent of government school students. Studies had proved that families which chose private schools were wealthier, so free bus travel was biased towards richer families.

By CATRIONA JACKSON
The Canberra Times 1 September 2001