A February report by the Urban Institute Student Transportation Working Group examines the relationships between transportation availability and school attendance, as well as why certain schooling decisions are made by families.
“Changes in student transportation may facilitate (or hinder) changes in schooling options, thereby changing the quality and character of education that a student is able to receive,” says the Urban Institute report. It published a compilation of numerous studies, reports and surveys carried out throughout the U.S. that explore what impact the lack of transportation services has on the schools children attend. Five choice-rich cities were examined (Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City and Washington, D.C.) to see what options they provide students and what innovations they are utilizing.
The National Center for Education Statistics shows the percentage of students who use publicly-funded transportation down to under 55 percent, from a high of 60 percent in 1980s, as reported from the 2007-2008 school year. At the same time, the cost to transport each student has gone up to $933 in 2014, according to the NCES report.
Publicly-funded transportation is used by about half of all American students, but school transportation accounted for approximately 4 percent of education expenses in 2012-2013. Funding comes from federal, state and local levels, with some states like New Hampshire providing only minimal assistance and others like South Carolina being completely responsible for running the school bus fleet for all students in the state.
Whether or not students ride the yellow bus has health and safety implications that the Urban Institute examined as well. It found that students who rode the bus or were driven to school were not necessarily unhealthier, but accumulated less physical activity than those who walked or biked. Exhaust from diesel buses was linked to an increased risk of health ailments like asthma or lung cancer, but the “strong safety record” of school buses was confirmed.
As for safety, a study done in Los Angeles showed that parents identified traffic risks as their primary area of concern when their kids walk to school. Meanwhile, local students, especially those who are black or Hispanic or live in urban areas, were more apt to fear encountering or being a victim of crime in the neighborhoods they walk through. Bullying is not so much a concern on buses as it is at school, the report states, despite anecdotal evidence from student transporters that the opposite is true.
Urban Institute examined the complications expanded school choice can pose to both bus and class scheduling, versus the increased opportunities for higher-quality schooling it provides to students. It revealed that, when given the options to send their children to a school with higher test scores, most parents would travel a few miles farther to do so; parents with less higher education themselves were more likely to find this a hardship than parents with at least a bachelor’s degree.
The report provided a statistic from 2009 that a third “of low-income parents in Denver, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. indicated that they would send their child farther from home to attend a better school if transportation were provided.”
Providing students with passes to ride transit buses for free is another option mentioned by the Urban Institute study. Two such programs were cited, one carried out in Minneapolis and one in Los Angeles, that resulted in a loss of revenue to the public transit system and a simultaneous reduction of school bus costs and road congestion.
The report looked at five US cities that have recently expanded school choice: Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City and Washington, D.C.
In Denver, Detroit and New York City, kindergarten, elementary and special needs students are prioritized for yellow school bus service, while junior high and high schoolers are given free passes for the public transit system. Of the five cities studied, New York City and Washington, DC provide the most widespread transportation, via either yellow bus or funded public transit, to all local public schools and most private schools, charter schools and non-local public schools. New Orleans does the same, with the exception of private schools. Washington, D.C. is unique in providing yellow bus service to only special needs students, and free bus or rail passes to all other students in grades K-12.
School transportation expenditures per enrolled student went up for Washington, D.C., New York City and New Orleans between 2003 and 2013, but stayed relatively the same for Denver and Detroit.
Lastly, the Urban Institute report looked at ways these five cities are encouraging innovation and safety developments. There is an active push to make streets safer for students who walk or bike to school in all five cities through the Safe Routes to School program, which includes barrier removals, increased signage, walking school buses, education and training. Denver and Detroit have buses circulating for students who would like to participate in after-school activities.
Technology is assisting officials in these five choice-rich cities with data collection on how many students ride school buses, how long they ride, and where they go. Washington, D.C. and Denver students are provided with RFID cards that collect this information.