Five Reasons Why We Must Modernize School Transportation

Five Reasons Why We Must Modernize School Transportation
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School transportation is like plumbing: We rarely discuss it, but when it’s not working, everyone notices. Like the pipes in your home, school transportation impacts every level of school systems, directly affecting the ability of schools to deliver on their core mission. To put it simply: If kids can’t get to school, everything else falls away.

Despite numerous problems that impact students, frustrate parents, cost taxpayers and hurt the environment, there are few easy solutions or ideas that don’t have significant trade-offs.  I spent part of the last year examining school transportation, and in Miles to Go, a Bellwether Education report, Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and I share what we learned. One key takeaway from our work is that we need to grapple with these trade-offs, as unsexy as they may be, because poorly functioning transportation systems have a major impact on students, families, schools and the environment.

Here are five major considerations: 

1. If students can’t get to school safely and on time, they can’t learn. This is basic, but about half of the nation’s students use school-provided transportation each day. That’s 25 million riders. So the functioning of education systems relies on transportation working.

2. School transportation is massive. It’s the largest mass transit system in the country – bigger than all other transit systems (planes, trains and buses) combined.

3. School districts spend a significant percentage of their budget on transportation services, and those costs are rising, taking away from instructional spending. Costs per school bus ride have increased over 75 percent per student since 1980. Based on U.S. Census school spending data, on average, districts spend about four or five percent of their operating budgets on transportation, but it’s not unusual to see much higher allocations. For example, Boston Public Schools spends over 10 percent of its total budget on transportation alone. Rural districts, where student populations are small and dispersed, often spend even more. With state funding largely failing to keep pace with costs, school districts must find funding locally. Districts must choose between limiting transportation service quality and efficiency or diverting funds meant for teachers, instructional materials or other resources central to their core mission.

4. Old school buses on our roads are horrible for the environment. Many school buses don’t operate with the most modern diesel engines on the market, to say nothing of alternative fuels and other technology with the potential to mitigate environmental impact. While several school districts are transitioning to cleaner buses, they still represent a tiny fraction of buses in operation. In 2014, only 6 percent of school buses on the roads in the U.S. and Canada operated on alternative fuels. This contrasts sharply with the public transit sector, where 35 percent of buses operate on alternative fuels. Transitioning to alternative fuels can yield long-term cost savings, environmental benefits and improved health outcomes for students. But short-term switching costs are high, presenting a significant barrier to already budget-strapped districts.

5. School choice isn’t a real choice if families can’t get kids to their preferred school. In communities where charter schools, open-enrollment or other school choice options are available, transportation options are what make these choices real. Only a handful of states require that transportation services extend to students attending schools of choice. Some districts, including Boston Public Schools and Denver Public Schools, do provide at least some transportation across school sectors. But in many communities, families that choose a school outside of their neighborhood school zone must arrange their own transportation. That reality creates an equity issue: families with more transportation options have more school options.

Modernizing school transportation is not easy. Designing these systems is a balancing act between optimizing student safety, maximizing efficiency and minimizing cost, as well as protecting the rights of students in special circumstances. Addressing any one of these factors may compromise another.

 But there are opportunities for improvement. They include improving the collection and use of data and technology, creating funding incentives for investments to improve environmental and budgetary impact (which can go hand in hand) and allowing districts more flexibility in designing systems that work for their communities.

School transportation typically operates within district boundaries and completely separate from any other regional transportation infrastructure serving the community. Let's think bigger. What if districts cooperated regionally or what if they worked in tandem with the larger transportation infrastructure in communities? A few districts are starting to think this way – in Florida, a couple of districts have a seat at the table of regional transportation planning organizations, looking for opportunities to plan and problem solve jointly.

Transportation isn’t glamorous, but it is foundational to the work of schools. Call the plumber. 

Jennifer O’Neal Schiess is a principal with the Policy and Thought Leadership Team at Bellwether Education Partners.

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