Imagining a choice-friendly school transportation system

Student transportation is as nuts-and-bolts as it gets. But if we want to expand access to quality schools, we have to get it right. Today, for all the expansion of school choice in Ohio and beyond, especially in urban areas, it’s far from clear how many students can physically access their top-choice schools. In a 2009 study, for example, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that low-income parents in Denver and Washington, D.C., were particularly likely to report that a lack of good transportation constrained their real-world choices.

This doesn’t come as a surprise. School transportation systems were designed for an era when practically all students attended the district-operated school nearest to their home. For a half-century now, students have ridden clunky school buses, and routing and scheduling schemes have assumed that pretty much everyone living in a particular neighborhood attends the same school, with relatively rare exceptions such as youngsters with significant disabilities. Moreover, some school systems have eschewed busing altogether—not a bad thing for kids who live within walking distance and in cities with crackerjack public-transport systems, but not a good thing in myriad other situations.

Ohio, though, was a pioneer in recognizing early on the value of transporting kids to their school of choice. Since 1966, private-school students (with some exceptions) have had the opportunity to ride a district school bus to their school of choice. Today, kids attend school all over the place, and increasingly often a school that is not the one assigned to them by convention. Last year, more than 300,000 Buckeye students attended a private school, enrolled in a brick-and-mortar charter, or participated in inter-district open enrollment. I’d wager that at least another 300,000 students attended a career-tech school, went to a magnet school within their home district, took classes at a college or university, or engaged in some form of work-study. The school-choice genie is most definitely out of the bottle, and the complexity of providing transportation services to so many different educational venues has left districts and schools of choice equally dissatisfied.

Now Ohio’s pupil-transportation system needs to catch up. To meet the demands of a choice-based education, that system must become nimbler, swifter, more cost-efficient, and a whole lot more consumer-centered. Achieving these objectives will require a ton of smart, innovative thinking, coordination across multiple entities, and a willingness to learn from other enterprises that face logistical challenges every day.

Plenty of issues await resolution. How do districts, charters, private schools, colleges, and even employers work cooperatively? How does one manage incompatible school schedules and calendars? What about midday and after-school transportation? Will students arrive at school on time or, better yet, “just in time”? Who pays for new infrastructure? Who owns and maintains the transportation fleet? How can we reduce travel times for students? How can the costs of transporting students be minimized over the long run? How do we ensure that all students—even those in remote areas—are included in the transportation system? What about student safety? Can technology solve these problems? The list could go on.

So when it comes to student transportation, there are many thorny questions. Businesses, however, have figured out how to transport packages and passengers quickly, reliably, and over long distances. And while transporting students is different than moving materials, schools can surely learn from how private enterprises design their networks. For instance, in Ohio’s metropolitan areas, what would a “hub-and-spoke” approach look like? Could students arrive at transit hubs and then take swifter modes of transportation—vans, cars, and heck even bikes—to traverse the “last mile” to school? What other models and “best practices” are out there? (Read about Denver’s Success Express shuttle service.) How about vouchers for needy families to purchase transportation? Ride-sharing programs? Private shuttle or taxi services? Improved integration between school transportation and public transit?

Ohio spends just over a half-billion state dollars per year just on pupil transportation. Tens of millions more are spent by families who pay out-of-pocket to drive their children to and from school. Yet despite this gigantic expenditure—both public and private dollars—too many students still don’t have the transportation they need to attend the school of their choice. It’s time to imagine a faster and more agile student-transportation system in Ohio.

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