About 36,000 Philadelphia middle school and high school students will be able to get free SEPTA passes to travel to school this year, state and school officials said yesterday.

Students who live more than a mile and a half from school will be eligible for free weekly passes. Those who live closer to school and need transportation will be eligible for reduced-cost passes, paying $15.65 a week instead of the full fare of $20.75.

Students at Philadelphia public, private and charter schools will be eligible for the passes.

Gov. Rendell, who announced the deal yesterday at Philadelphia School District headquarters, hailed the agreement between SEPTA and the school district as "historic" and said "it finally ends the era of our middle and high school students having to pay to get to school."

Currently, about 32,000 students in grades 7 through 12 take SEPTA buses and subways to school. About 14,000 received free tokens, but the remaining 18,000 bought subsidized tokens for $1 apiece. All students received free paper transfers if they needed to switch buses; transfers cost other riders 60 cents.

SEPTA is seeking to eliminate all transfers, which prompted the efforts to find a way to keep students from paying more for their trips to school.

Greg Wade, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, said he was ecstatic when he received the phone call yesterday morning outlining the agreement.

"It's awesome that Gov. Rendell and Mr. Fumo stepped up and brokered this deal with SEPTA," he said, referring to State Sen. Vince Fumo (D., Phila.). "It's a win-win situation for our children."

Wade, who had spent two days at the recent SEPTA hearings, said it had looked as if both the school district and cash-strapped families were going to have to pay more for SEPTA passes.

"All I could think about is that a lot of our families were not going to be able to afford to send their kids to school," Wade said.

"This is a great service for our students," said Donna Farrell, the director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. "We are very appreciative. The way we view it, it helps out our parents who are paying tuition to send their children to our schools."

Farrell said the archdiocese estimated the agreement would help 7,200 students who attend Catholic schools.

Meanwhile, the city has sued SEPTA to try to block the elimination of transfers, saying it creates an undue burden on poor and minority riders.

Fumo, who was a prime architect of the agreement, said the students represent about half of the SEPTA passengers who use transfers. SEPTA has said about 8 percent of its riders use transfers; the city has argued the percentage is higher.

"We had an easier time negotiating with Republicans in the Senate than these two bureaucracies," Fumo said of efforts to bring SEPTA and the school district together.

The passes for students will be valid only for morning and afternoon travel on weekdays. When the school week is shorter than five days, the price will be discounted accordingly.

Students will be able to get the passes as they did tokens in the past, typically from principals or school staff.

Tom Brady, the district's interim chief executive officer, called the announcement a "tremendous accomplishment."

"It benefits every school child in all of Philadelphia," he said, thanking Rendell and Fumo.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Martha Woodall and Susan Snyder also contributed to this article.