Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Transportation and the Environment at the Hearing on B24-565, Safe Routes to School Expansion Regulation Amendment Act

Mar 14, 2022

Good afternoon, Councilmember Cheh and members of the Committee. My name is Shannon Hodge, and I am the Founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that every student can choose high-quality public schools that prepare them for lifelong success.

On behalf of the DC charter school community, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you about the proposal before you today to improve traffic safety around schools.

Traffic Safety Improvements

Losing a child is an immeasurable loss, and this year we have lost too many young lives to traffic accidents. I want to start by expressing my gratitude to Councilmember Janeese Lewis George for her leadership in introducing this bill to address this critical issue. I’m deeply appreciative that this bill treats all public schools—including charter schools—equally.

As I testified recently, we really need effective District Department of Transportation (DDOT) planning that considers all the needs of our students and communities and finds solutions.  From vehicle and pedestrian safety issues to a shortage of convenient bus routes and transportation options, the District’s transportation needs are complex and compounding. Too often the system is plagued by a lack of cross-agency coordination and long-range planning that does not center the needs of students, especially in communities with the most need, highest safety risks, and least infrastructure and opportunity.

To that end, I’m encouraged by the more holistic approach to traffic safety concerns this bill offers, including directing DDOT to conduct a thorough assessment of current infrastructure for every public school in the District, and then prioritizing school communities with the greatest needs. Other provisions, like standardizing school zones around every school, including charters, across the city and providing every school with at least one crossing guard during drop off and dismissal will greatly improve traffic safety for our students.

Neighborhood Input

I want to offer a few suggestions for ways that this proposal could be further strengthened. First, while charter school leaders are in agreement that standardizing school zones and traffic calming strategies are necessary to keep students safe, the Council should clarify how DDOT will seek input from the neighbors surrounding schools. New zoning ordinances and changes to traffic patterns will impact our neighborhoods, and they should be included in the process in meaningful ways. Residents know vital information that can help keep our neighborhoods safe, so we encourage the Council to strengthen the bill by maximizing opportunities for residents’ input and ensuring schools and neighbors are able to work together.

Traffic Safety Equity

Second, equity should always be at the center of everything we do, and that includes in our response to traffic safety issues. In some neighborhoods where our schools are located, particularly those in Wards 7 and 8, bus stops are up to a 20-minute walk from schools, and Metro stops are mostly nonexistent. Those routes are often unsafe for students to use. That’s why some of our school leaders have expressed concern about a provision in the bill asking for data collection on modes of transportation for the purpose of reducing reliance on cars.

While we understand the intent behind reducing car use, we need to be careful that we aren’t unintentionally dissuading a lot of our families from using the only transportation method that ensures their child arrives safely to school. Traffic safety is an equity issue, and for some families, encouraging greater use of public transportation versus taking students to and from school by car can literally be a life or death decision.

I also want to encourage the Council to think boldly about innovative solutions to equity in traffic safety—solutions that allow families to get students to school in ways that work best for them. For example, other states have implemented transportation modernization grant programs, which give schools the ability to try out innovative and unique solutions to their student transportation problems instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all approach.

Improving Data Collection

Third, while we understand the role that data collection plays in ensuring we are accurately identifying areas with the most need and effectively deploying resources, I encourage the Council to consider better, more efficient ways to gather these data. Rather than surveying every student and staff in every school, the Council should explore more efficient data collection methods like setting a valid sample size, much like we’ve done with rapid COVID-19 testing information, that is representative of each ward, transportation methods, and times of day. These data are critical for long-range planning and for ensuring the safety of our students and residents. I encourage the Council to direct DDOT and public schools to collaborate on better, more effective solutions for collecting them.

Moving Forward

As I’ve said before this Council many times before, DC’s public charter schools are nimble, responsive, and innovative. Each charter school has a different model to create unique and responsive learning environments for their students so each one can choose a high-quality public school and receive a great public education that prepares them for lifelong success.

We know that we all share the same goal—to build a truly equitable system that provides an education for all our students, and does so safely. We at the DC Charter School Alliance are ready to work alongside the Council and the City to ensure we are providing the education our students deserve.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.