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.”

Should We Take Betsy DeVos Seriously or Literally?

Betsy DeVos photo by Flickr user Michael Vadon
DeVos by Michael Vadon on Flickr

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 Chad Aldeman.

During last year’s presidential campaign, there was an intellectual debate about whether we should take then-candidate Trump at his literal word, or if he should be taken seriously but not literally. We now face the same dilemma with his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

To understand why, start with DeVos’ statement in March about how her department would implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA):

My philosophy is simple: I trust parents, I trust teachers, and I trust local school leaders to do what’s right for the children they serve. ESSA was passed with broad bipartisan support to move power away from Washington, D.C., and into the hands of those who are closest to serving our nation’s students.

States, along with local educators and parents, are on the frontlines of ensuring every child has access to a quality education. The plans each state develops under the streamlined ESSA template will promote innovation, flexibility and accountability to ensure every child has a chance to learn and succeed.

Flexibility, local control, power away from Washington. Got it. States know what to do with that.

But wait. DeVos is also on the record on multiple occasions, in multiple contexts, declaring that she will follow federal law as written. Similarly, Jason Botel, her Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, is holding states specifically to what’s in the ESSA statute.

There is an inherent conflict here between flexibility and rigidity. And we’re starting to see the consequences of that tension. Although ESSA provides states wide latitude in a number of areas, there are portions that are both clear and strict. Here are four examples where this tension may play out:

  1. ESSA doesn’t qualify science or social studies as “academic achievement” measures for the purposes of accountability. Those measures may be included in other areas of a state’s accountability system, but a literal interpretation of ESSA suggests that states can only count English and math toward the state’s achievement indicator.
  2. ESSA requires states to measure proficiency as their academic achievement indicator. Several states are attempting to shift from the NCLB-era focus on one proficiency threshold toward a more continuous measure of performance, and a number of academics have spoken out in favor of this idea. But a strict interpretation of ESSA says states must include proficiency.
  3. ESSA, like No Child Left Behind before it, requires states to identify any school where any subgroup of students is consistently underperforming. States have wide discretion in how they define “consistently underperforming,” but ESSA does not allow states the flexibility to narrow their approach to focus only on certain historically low-performing groups or to combine groups in any way. Any means any.
  4. ESSA imposes a strict rule on how states should identify schools with low-performing subgroups. The law says states must identify any school with any subgroup performing, by itself, as low as the bottom five percent of schools overall. Although I haven’t seen any state game this out publicly — which is saying something in the first place — my sense from several private conversations is that this definition, applied strictly, could capture 40-60 percent of schools in a given state. That’s a lot! States don’t want to identify that many schools and are instead proposing a number of approaches to cap how many schools they identify.

DeVos has put herself in a tight spot with her Department’s “letter of the law” rhetoric, because it will force her to apply rigid rules like these on states, regardless of their policy merits or her stated desire for flexibility and local control. Worse, if she picks and chooses where to strictly hew to the law and where not to, she’ll open herself up for charges of hypocrisy.

This conundrum is a big reason why I have personally advocated for a different style of accountability that hinges on results, not rules. It’s also why we convened an independent review of ESSA state plans that looks beyond mere compliance with the law. But without guidance from Secretary DeVos, states are left wondering whether they should take her seriously or literally. It’s a question that has big implications for the field.

Summer Reading List: Bellwether’s Early Childhood Work

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 Ashley LiBetti Mitchel.

ICYMI: Bellwether’s early childhood team does really interesting work. Since I last wrote for this blog, we’ve further explored the potential alignment between charter schools and pre-k; developed a large (and growing) body of research on Head Start; and are currently working on a range of early childhood topics, such as coaching as teacher professional development and improving teacher preparation for early childhood professionals.

Our pre-k charter work started with a national survey of how hospitable state policy environments are for charter schools to serve preschoolers. Through that survey, we found that most states create barriers to charter pre-k programs — sometimes inadvertently — but in nearly every state, charters have managed to find a way to serve preschoolers anyway. To better understand what charter pre-k looks like in practice, we visited several charter pre-k programs across the country and shared what we learned in an article for Education Next. There’s also a podcast episode and a C-SPAN interview that review some of our research photo of a child in glasses reading a book

On Head Start, some of our work pushes for using quality data to improve grantee performance and better serve children and families. “Renewing Head Start’s Promise” highlights recent efforts to improve the oversight of Head Start grantees and recommends changes to further this type of progress. In “Moneyball for Head Start,” Bellwether worked with several other organizations to develop a vision for using data, evidence, and evaluation to improve Head Start outcomes. Similar to “Renewing Head Start’s Promise,” we make recommendations for improving federal oversight, but also recommend changes at the local grantee level and for researchers, philanthropists, and the private sector. We further explore a promising recommendation for local grantees – developing networked learning communities — in Chapter 7 of “16 for 2016: 16 Education Policy Ideas for the Next President.”

Another recent Head Start piece is on the Head Start workforce. “The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners” traces the evolution of Head Start workforce policies over 50 years and details how shifts in the broader early childhood landscape, especially state-funded pre-k programs, have influenced these policies. The piece finds that while there have been increases in education and credential requirements for Head Start teachers, these requirements did not alleviate — and in fact may have exacerbated — other challenges related to recruiting, retaining, and compensating a high-quality Head Start workforce.

Finally, Bellwether’s early childhood team have capitalized on this deep knowledge base by exploring other factors that affect Head Start quality. Analyses of the Head Start performance standards — the rules that govern the operation of Head Start programs — are here and here. And in the Journal of Behavioral Science and Policy, we review the effect of policy initiatives that have sought to improve the quality of Head Start programs and make our own recommendations for doing so, including giving grantees the flexibility to “triage” services to the highest need children, shifting performance measures to focus on outcomes rather than compliance, and changing federal policies so grantees can more easily integrate with local and state early childhood initiatives.

In the coming months, our team will publish a number of other early childhood pieces. We partnered with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes to develop a birth-through-3rd grade toolkit (available later this summer) to help state education agencies bring early grades into ESSA school improvement conversations. For a preview of that work, see here and here. We’re also doing more work on the early childhood workforce, extended beyond just Head Start to preparation pathways and research for all early childhood teachers. Our Head Start work is also continuing, with forthcoming publications on teacher coaching and an analysis of Head Start exemplars (grantees with evidence that they produce better-than-average impact on children’s learning outcomes).

And if that’s not enough early childhood reading, Sara Mead regularly writes on early childhood issues for US News and World Report — most recently, about how policymakers should be open to change in the early childhood space — and there’s always great early childhood-related content on the Bellwether blog, Ahead of the Heard.

Happy Birthday to The Learning Landscape — What’s Next?

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 Schiess.

The education sector is plagued by binary thinking that labels possible solutions as either heroic or evil. Too often we see advocates relying on a narrow selection of evidence that supports a particular point of view, rather than acknowledging that evidence is often murky, sometimes contradictory, and nearly always complex.

At Bellwether, we wanted to help paint a fuller picture of what we know — and don’t know — in education. So in August 2016, we launched The Learning Landscape to provide an even-handed presentation of the history, trends, and evidence on six core issues in education:

  • Student Achievement
  • Accountability, Standards, and Assessment
  • School Finance
  • Teacher Effectiveness
  • Charter Schools
  • Philanthropy

This dynamic website has been a resource for the field, the media, and in the public, adding the complexity lacking in many debates today. Here’s a small sampling of what people have been saying on Twitter:

NSVF ChiefsforChange EduPost CharlesBarone

We heard from college professors at Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, and the University of Virginia, who are using the site as course material in undergraduate and graduate level courses in public policy and education. And we’ve gotten numerous pieces of anecdotal feedback reinforcing the quality of the content and the presentation.

As we approach The Learning Landscape’s first birthday, we are contemplating what is next. We are currently seeking funding to maintain the site and grow version 2.0 as a resource to inform the critical debates shaping schooling for millions of American students. Our wish list includes:

  1. Covering more topics. The Learning Landscape covers a lot, but there’s a lot more it could include. We’re imagining new chapters on early childhood education, innovation and personalized learning, special education, rural education, and more, plus a broader, more comprehensive treatment of school choice policies.

  2. Increasing interactivity. We want to upgrade visuals and data presentations and add dynamic features to make the data and information even more accessible, engaging, and useful.

  3. Adding new features. In addition to providing current and vetted information on critical topics in the education landscape, we’re thinking of ways to provide a portal to more real-time conversations and perspectives. We could highlight the publication of new research in the field, connect users to recent news on the topics covered, or to track major policy movements at the federal and state level. We could also create audio or video content, such as podcasts or interviews to showcase policy discussions among leaders in the field.

We welcome feedback on the site and insight on what you’d like to see next. Send us your thoughts and ideas! Email, Tweet to @bellwethered, or follow us on Facebook.

Pensions Are Expensive But Not Generous

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 Chad Aldeman.

In our work on teacher pensions, we spend a lot of time explaining one major contradiction: Teacher pension plans today are tremendously expensive, but they’re not that generous for the average teacher.

Nationally, states and districts are contributing about five percent of each teacher’s salary toward actual retirement benefits. For most workers, that would be the equivalent of a five percent match into their 401(k) plan. That’s slightly better than a typical private sector 401(k), but it’s certainly not an outrageously generous contribution.

But teacher pensions have three unique features that distort this reality. One is that 90 percent of teachers are enrolled in defined benefit pension plans where contributions are not strictly tied to benefits. That is, the plans make promises to pay out benefits in the future, but if the plans fail to save enough to pay for those promises, or if the plan’s assumptions about how much they need to save turn out to be flawed, the plan will take on “unfunded liabilities” that function like debt. These debt costs have soared in recent years; in response, teacher pension contribution rates have risen dramatically even as the value of teacher benefits have gone down.

The graph below shows total state and district contributions toward teacher retirement plans, broken down by whether they’re going toward actual retirement benefits or debt costs (these don’t include teacher contributions, which have also risen in recent years). In the average state, employers are contributing about 16 percent of teacher salaries toward pension plans, but less than a third of that (five percent out of the 16) is going toward actual benefits.

The second reason pensions are often perceived as generous is because the five percent going toward benefits is not distributed evenly. Unlike an employer match into a 401(k) plan, where everyone gets the same percentage of their salary matched into their own account, in pension plans the five percent is the average across all different workers. Those who stay in the same plan for a full career will earn benefits far above that amount, while the many teachers who only serve for five or ten or 20 years earn far less than average.

Third, the five percent contribution today represents an average across all employees, regardless of when they started, but states have cut benefits significantly for new workers.

As the graph above helps illustrate, multiple things can be true at once: States are contributing a lot of money toward teacher retirement costs, but teacher retirement plans, on average, are not that generous. Alternative plan designs could be more portable, more equitably distributed, and no less generous.

For more on how well state pensions plans serve the unique needs of their teachers, check out our recent rankings here.