Fixing today's school transportation problems

The release of this latest report from Bellwether Education Partners is fortuitously timed as school districts large and small reach the end of another school year beset by transportation problems. Authors Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess dissect those challenges and argue convincingly that the difficulties in providing effective and efficient service are the result of archaic structures, bureaucratic inertia, and siloed responsibilities. It is less a question of money, as some would argue, than a lack of wherewithal to change how that money is spent.

The authors begin by describing the main models of student transportation: district-operated, contractor-operated, public transit, and various combinations of the three. While all of these models are decades old, the district-centered model still predominates: school systems own and operate two-thirds of all school buses on the road today. Various state funding models are also described. Some are aimed at maintaining the district-operated status quo, others are more student and family-centric and agnostic on form, and still others incentivize contracting out transportation or seeking economies of scale with parallel public transit systems.

Rural and suburban districts face challenges of distance and inefficient routes. Urban districts face myriad challenges posed by school choice. With magnet schools, charters, and vouchers available to growing numbers of students, transportation coordinators must contend with varying school year starts, school day lengths, and distribution of students and schools beyond their own borders.

Despite a penchant for radical redesign of the educational playing field, Bellwether takes a two-pronged approach to their recommendations here. They lead with “inside the box” suggestions for districts unable or unwilling to change the basic structure of district-operated transportation. These include greater use of technology and data to help redesign routes for greater efficiency and better tracking, changes in funding to incentivize efficiency and lessen environmental impacts, and regulatory changes to allow more and different types of vehicles to serve students more flexibly.

For metropolitan areas where choice is increasing—and where transportation difficulties are mounting—Bellwether has more “out of the box” recommendations (although better data use and incentive funding feature in both sets). These involve a greater integration between student transportation and overall public transit. This could mean a city bus or subway system taking on student transportation rather than simply providing free or discounted passes for students, as is the case in cities like Washington, D.C. and Columbus. Certain federal regulations currently prevent public transit from being used as student-only transportation, severely limiting such integration, but metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) hold the key to bridging this gap, say the authors. MPOs are required in any urbanized area with populations over 50,000 and are tasked with coordinating regional transportation improvement plans in collaboration with all city, county, and state governments in the region. While this has historically meant federal highway projects, a case study from Hillsborough County, Florida, found within the report is an interesting albeit preliminary peek at the possibilities of sharing technology, equipment, maintenance, and schedules among the spectrum of transit providers. The countywide school system is represented on the Hillsborough MPOs board, but the chilling effect of those federal regulations means little practical interaction can occur.

The authors suggest that proper planning and coordination, along with federal regulatory reform, could be an effective avenue for addressing school transportation issues for the twenty-first century. School districts across the country should take note and give this report a look. After all, as any student will tell you, the next school year is just around the corner, even if the bus is not.

SOURCE: Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” Bellwether Education Partners (May 2017).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,