Testimony of Ilana Boivie at the Budget Oversight Hearing for the FY 2018 Local Budget Act of 2017, DC Council Committee of the Whole

Chairperson Mendelson and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Ilana Boivie and I am the senior policy analyst of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI promotes budget and policy choices to expand economic opportunity and reduce income inequality in the District of Columbia, through independent research and policy recommendations.

I would like to focus my testimony today on the need to provide transportation subsidies for adult learners in the District. DC residents who try to improve their job prospects by participating in adult education programs find that transportation costs—usually bus fare—often keeps them from completing their programs and fulfilling their goals. Transportation assistance can achieve three very important outcomes: it can improve the outcomes of the city’s substantial investments in adult education, strengthen the DC economy by helping more residents live up to their potential, and help shore up WMATA’s finances by offering stability of ridership.

 The Need for Transportation Assistance Is High

Government reports and resident surveys alike have noted the need to provide more comprehensive transportation assistance to adult learners. For example:

  • Listening sessions conducted in 2015 by the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition (AFLC) and Fair Budget Coalition found that transportation cost is a major barriers to attending and remaining in educational programs.
  • A 2016 survey of re-engaging youth aged 22-24 found that 83% of respondents were spending approximately one-fifth or more of their income getting to and from their programs. The survey also found that these older youth miss 13% of their program’s total class time because they cannot afford to get there.
  • The WIOA state plan—co-written by the DMGEO, DOES, DHS, DDS, and OSSE, among other government agencies—notes that “many adult learners need additional support services, such as transportation…but access to these services varies by programs and providers and gaps exist.”[1]
  • A fall 2016 report from the Deputy Mayor for Education found that the “unmet need” for transportation assistance is at least 4,400 learners per year, up to approximately 8,000 per year.[2]

Thus, Mayor Bowser’s administration has now looked at this issue twice—first in the WIOA State Plan, then in the DME report—and have reported that this population highly needs transportation assistance. Both of these reports looked at existing subsidies, such as those for TANF recipients, and decided that there is a large unmet need outside of these programs.

The need to break down this barrier is high, especially east of the Anacostia River, where over 20,000 adults—some 41 percent of the population—have less than a high school credential.

Ward Number of Residents 18+ with Less than an High School Credential Percent of Total Ward Population
1            9,562 15%
2            4,671 6%
3            1,336 2%
4            9,972 16%
5            9,915 16%
6            6,510 10%
7            9,515 19%
8          10,582 22%
Source: American Community Survey, 2014

Ward 8 also has 22 percent of the total adult education enrollment in the District.

Ward Percent of Total District Enrollment in Adult Public Charter Schools and OSSE-Funded CBOs, 2016
1 34.2%
2 11.2%
4 8.1%
5 21.5%
6 0.9%
7 2.4%
8 21.7%
Source: OSSE Adult and Family Education Center

That the cost of transportation presents such a high barrier should not be all that surprising, considering that most of these learners are pursuing a GED or equivalent. (Over half of enrolled learners test at a sixth-grade level or below in reading and/or math.) Residents without a high school credential generally make the minimum wage, and their incomes have actually fallen since 2007.[3] The unemployment rate among DC residents without a high school credential stood at 15 percent in 2006.[4] DC’s WIOA State Plan notes that nearly 37 percent of District families headed by someone with less than a high school credential live below the poverty level.[5]

For someone living in poverty, the $70 monthly cost of taking the bus to and from school can consume a huge portion of their family income. And the $0.25 bus fare hike coming in July will add another $10 per month.

The DME report recommends “expand[ing] the unlimited bus and rail component of the School Transit Subsidy program to all District residents enrolled in a publicly funded adult education program.”[6] It found that it would cost $1.5 million to $2 million to serve the 7,494 students enrolled in community-based organizations (CBOs), UDC’s Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning programs (WDLL), and adult charter and alternative education schools who are not currently receiving assistance.

Transportation Subsidies Offer a Good Return on Investment in Many Ways

Low Negotiated Cost. This expansion of the Kids Ride Free program would leverage the program’s existing technology infrastructure and low negotiated cost, currently just $0.65 daily for each pupil. This means that the cost of providing transportation assistance though Kids Ride Free is much more cost-effective than other ways of funding such a program. For example, some adult education programs provide limited transportation assistance to students, but they pay the full fare of $1.75 per bus ride. So, even the assistance they provide—nearly $20,000 annually at one school, and up to $50,000 at another—does not come close to filling the full needs of their learners.[7] Also, that money would likely be better spent by these schools on programming, rather than transportation. The DME report finds that without the reduced rate, the cost of this expansion would be nearly triple.

Better Finances for WMATA. At the same time, the additional ridership could also help shore up WMATA’s finances. Even at $0.65 per day, WMATA will benefit financially, since many learners ride at non-peak hours, when Metro has excess capacity. (In other words, the marginal cost to WMATA to serve each additional rider at these times is essentially $0.) At the WMTA budget oversight hearing, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld noted that WMATA would be able to implement the program, if it is funded, and that the added revenues and stability of ridership would help WMATA.

Better Outcomes and Long Term Prospects. The District currently invests over $80 million in local and federal dollars to support educational instruction for adult learners. Removing the barrier of transportation is key to facilitate access to the District’s “second-chance system” for the thousands of residents who struggled to thrive in the traditional education system.  With greater access to the jobs from which they’ve been previously shut out, the impact of this investment will benefit not just learners and their families, but also the broader economy. The DME report notes that “the current investment in adult education could yield greater results with a reduction in transportation costs for adult learners.”

Other Issues

We understand that the CFO is exploring an updated cost estimate for this proposal, which is needed to include it in the budget.  We think it is important to make sure that any cost estimate assumes that the District will negotiate with Metro for a heavily discounted daily rate per person, as has been done for Kids Ride Free. Given General Manager Wiedefeld’s testimony, WMATA seems to be fully prepared to create an “Adult Learners Ride Free” program, which presumably includes the same kind of negotiated rate as with Kids Ride Free.

In addition, I understand, Chairman Mendelson, that you have had concerns that Kids Ride Free is not means-tested, and that you have expressed interest in making a new adult learner transportation subsidy means-tested.  While we understand your motivation to devote DC resources in a targeted way, almost everyone who pursues adult basic education is low-income, as my testimony reflects.  We are concerned that means-testing would add an administrative layer that would add to costs and may discourage some people from applying. At the same time, in the end, almost everyone would qualify for subsidies anyway.  For these reasons, we do not think means-testing makes sense for adult learners.

This spring, legislation was introduced in the DC Council to provide free public transportation for adults in education programs, based on the recommendations of the DME report. DCFPI hopes that this bill, Adult Learners Transit Subsidy Amendment Act of 2017, is fully funded and incorporated into the FY 2018 budget, so that this important program can be implemented as quickly as possible.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today. I am happy to answer any questions.


[1] DC’s WIOA Unified State Plan, 2016-2020. Available at https://dcworks.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcworks/publication/attachments/WIOA_DC_Unified_State_Plan_Final.pdf

[2] Available at http://lims.dccouncil.us/Download/36809/RC21-0140-Introduction.pdf

[3] DCFPI. 2015. “Two Paths to Better Jobs for DC Residents: Improved Training and Stronger Job Protections.” https://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/State-of-Working-DC-Final-10.14.15.pdf

[4] DCFPI. 2017. “Still Looking for Work: Unemployment in DC Highlights Racial Inequity.” https://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Still-Looking-for-Work-Unemployment-2017_fnl.pdf

[5] DC’s WIOA Unified State Plan, 2016-2020. Available at https://dcworks.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcworks/publication/attachments/WIOA_DC_Unified_State_Plan_Final.pdf

[6] The DME report notes that certain adult learners may have access to transportation subsidies through other programs, and provides descriptions of these various programs. However, the report goes on to conclude that due to “very narrow, specific eligibility requirements” there remains a very high unmet need in the city.

[7] Survey of DC AFLC members.