But its true roots are in an attempt to reform one of the most inefficient transportation systems in the country, one that costs almost $7,000 a year for each passenger, an amount so high that many of those children could hire a livery cab for about the same price. By comparison with the next three largest school districts, Los Angeles spends about $3,200, Chicago about $5,000, and Miami, $1,000.

In New York, the straightforward task of transporting children to and from school has become a morass of good and bad intentions, shortsighted marketplace policies and outright corruption.

For decades, the city has embraced anticompetitive measures and carried on business relations with an array of bus companies, including some that have been implicated in bribery, been under the sway of organized crime and, in one case, run by a man who displayed a pistol at a negotiating session.

Both union leaders and city employees have gone to prison for shaking down bus companies, offering in return labor peace, advance notice of inspections or approval of lucrative extra routes.