Is Industry on Right Side of Road in Serving All School-Aged Students?

Students loading bus

On May 2, 2017, I attended a panel session in Washington, D.C., presented by Bellwether Education Partners, titled “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” followed by the release of an eye-opening publication with the same title.

After reading this 71-page report, written by a national nonprofit focused on “dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved children,” I asked myself if today’s prominent yellow school bus advocates, leaders and transportation associations are asleep at the wheel when it comes to what the current role of transportation to and from school in the 21st Century needs to be, in order to meet the transportation requirements of all school-aged children.

I asked myself, how I can continue to support the school bus industry moving forward for all children who require transportation services? I passionately questioned my ability to change my current thinking and become unbiased, by looking outside of my comfort zone as a strong advocate of the yellow bus as being the single most acceptable appropriate means of transportation to and from school. However, I recognize that change is imminent and requires my support without compromising my commitment to safety.

After reading the Bellwether report, I immediately began to question the gap between what families require for transportation services today for their children and what school districts are providing. My thinking led me to ask if the iconic “yellow school bus” merited support as the only acceptable means of school transportation.

What I clearly focused on in reading this report was the “logical inefficiencies of the yellow bus.” At first, I could not believe what I was reading: “Despite its symbolic value, the yellow school bus creates significant operational and environmental inefficiencies in many districts—inefficiencies that increasingly drain district budgets, hamper families’ access to high-quality schools outside their neighborhoods, and damage the environment.”

After deliberating for a significant period of time, I was far more open to accepting this statement: “While the traditional, district-operated school transportation model accounts for nearly two-thirds of all school buses on the road today, many districts have turned to contract with private providers or relying on public transit to meet some or all of their school transportation needs. The movement to different service models is attributable in part to the changing nature of school districts, particularly in urban areas.

“The dominant yellow bus transportation system is designed to serve a ‘traditional district,’ where students attend centrally located neighborhood schools. But more and more districts are offering families the option to choose from among public schools regardless of their geographic proximity to home.

“For example, there are now over 6,000 charter schools enrolling nearly 3 million students nationwide. The transportation needs of students who are now crossing town versus crossing the street to attend school are changing the way these districts must think about and deliver school transportation.”

These statements provided a great deal of information to digest and recognize what is being said by individuals outside of the school bus industry, who are critically looking at transportation of school-age students in the 21st Century. I asked myself, what would be the best method for exploring alternative transportation models while not compromising safety standards?

That is the primary challenge ahead for the compelling supporters of the yellow school bus. Nobody is questioning the proven safety record of the yellow school bus; the real issue is meeting transformations in the education options and models for today’s students, including transportation to and from school.

I went back to the 1939 publication, “School Bus Standards, Modern School Series,” edited by Frank W. Cyr, which is a classic and revered publication in the school bus industry. After reading 45 pages, I more than ever recognize the importance of supporting transportation options for school-aged children, by identifying the complexities that are involved in serving all children and families with distinctive needs, including the impact of student diversity on education operations and models in place today.

I enthusiastically encourage yellow school bus advocates, leaders and national association members to become thoroughly informed about changes in the 21st-century education, and to join the dialogue and support safe transportation, regardless of the mode of transportation that is now persuasively part of the marketplace. The key is not compromising transportation safety standards for our nation’s children traveling to and from school, notwithstanding the means of transportation.

I question if there is a place for a discussion regarding the above matters at the upcoming 17th National Congress on School Transportation, held in May 2020. I am cautiously optimistic.


Linda is a consultant to the Maryland State Department of Education Division of Early Intervention Services/ Special Education. She is a past-president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation and was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame last fall.

 

References:

  1. Burgoyne-Allen, P. and O’Neal Schiess, J. Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century. Bellwether Education Partners, 2017.
  2. Gross, B. Going the Extra Mile for School Choice. Center for Reinventing Public Education, 2019.
  3. Teske, P., Fitzpatrick, J. and O’Brien, T. Drivers of Choice: Parents, Transportation, and School Choice. Center for Reinventing Public Education, 2009.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the October 2019 issue of School Transportation News.