Three Ways States Can Innovate School Transportation

This week Eduwonk features guest posts from different members of Bellwether’s Policy and Thought Leadership team who lead some of our most impactful work. The post below is by Jennifer O’Neal Schiess and Phillip Burgoyne-Allen.

Since its passage in December of 2015, much attention has been paid to the flexibility that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returns to states. However, as we describe in our recent report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” one area where states have always had tremendous latitude is school transportation.

School buses by Flickr user Zemlinki

Federal policy determines some school transportation decisions, like setting safety standards for school bus manufacturing and establishing school transportation rights for homeless students and certain students with disabilities. Federal “tripper” regulations also limit the extent to which public transit systems and school districts can collaborate to provide service specifically for students. But for the general education population, states control the structure and function of school transportation operations. States largely determine what types of vehicles may be used to transport students, which students are eligible for transportation services, and how those services are funded. State policy also governs other areas of education policy that in turn have school transportation implications, such as school calendars and schedules and school choice policies that allow students to choose schools outside of their neighborhood attendance zone.

And yet, despite rising per-pupil costs and annual spending totaling more than $20 billion, most states have failed to reimagine student transportation systems since the rise of the yellow bus nearly 80 years ago. With their broad authority to shape school transportation systems, states have great potential to drive improvement to systems that are too often inefficient, costly, and out of synch with the way schools operate for many communities.

Here are three ways states can influence better and more innovative school transportation systems:

States can provide targeted programs to convert school bus fleets to greener options. School transportation systems lag behind other mass transit systems in mitigating environmental impact. More than 35 percent of public transit buses operate on cleaner-running alternative fuels. But as recently as 2012, less than 6 percent of school buses purchased in the U.S. and Canada combined ran on cleaner fuels. Although alternatively-fueled buses yield environmental and student health dividends and can be less expensive to operate over their lifespan, higher upfront costs both for vehicles and the infrastructure to maintain them present a significant barrier for many districts.

Some states offer targeted assistance to districts to transition to cleaner buses, but more could be done. For example, California’s Lower-Emission School Bus Program provides grant funding for replacing older school buses and purchasing air pollution control equipment for buses already in use. Mississippi’s Revolving Loan Program, meanwhile, provides zero-interest loans for public school districts to cover the incremental cost of purchasing new school buses powered by non-diesel fuels, converting older buses to non-diesel fuel systems, and installing the necessary fueling stations.

States can revise funding structures to encourage efficiency and good system management practices. Most school transportation funding structures do little to promote efficiency. The dominant funding models depend either on reimbursement for local transportation costs, set per-student funding levels, or calculations of the number of miles that buses or students travel.  But states could build bonus structures into their formulas for efficiency. Florida provides a model with a funding adjustment based on average bus occupancy, but other benchmarks like average cost per rider could also be used.

States could also subsidize one-time investments in infrastructure and technology. Districts could mitigate some challenges to inefficiency by implementing practices that are more commonplace in other parts of the transportation sector. For example, few districts collect data on actual ridership, leaving the route-planning process blind to the actual behavior of its student customers. Technology that could improve efficiency — GPS technology and systems that could track bus progress, help pinpoint problem areas along routes, and provide information to families — is rare. However, districts facing major cost pressures in transportation operations have little incentive to absorb upfront costs in things like technology infrastructure, data systems, and updated routing software that will yield long-term efficiency gains.

And states could also decouple funding for transportation operations and capital expenditures in places where it is combined into a single funding stream. Lumping funding that pays for buses and equipment and funding for operations into one pot creates incentives for districts to delay capital investments when more volatile operational costs, such as fuel costs or driver wages, increase and strain budgets. These delays can result in less efficient, or even less safe, transportation services.

States can allow for local flexibility in system design that allows for transportation solutions that best match local needs and conditions. While states must balance the need for regulations that protect students’ safety and educational rights, providing some flexibility allows districts to implement tailored approaches to school transportation that meet the needs of individual communities. For example, many rural districts transport a small number of students across long distances. Using a large school bus designed to seat 50 or more children can be a costly burden, and operating fewer large buses drives lengthy ride times for students when buses must cover expansive geographic areas. But only eight states allow passenger vans to be used for school transportation service. Allowing local communities flexibility in things like vehicle choice could improve efficiency and cost effectiveness. Proponents of ESSA argue that states are better equipped to design education policies that reflect their unique contexts and needs. The same logic suggests that one-size-fits-all school transportation systems fail to recognize significant differences in local needs and realities.

For more about current state of school transportation, read Bellwether’s report: “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century.”

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