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New Way of Thinking Needed to Address Educational Inequality

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” So said the great Chinese general Sun Tzu. While what lies before the student transportation industry is not a military challenge per se, the collective response may very well dictate how the fight for its future plays out.

Although many school bus drivers are eager to get back behind the wheel to their students, the uncertainty of COVID-19 has resulted in many others expressing fear because of their age or underlying health conditions. Amid all the planning, the what-if scenarios, the potential reduction in passenger capacity, the rerouting, and the disinfecting is the realization that the cost of transporting students is entering an astronomical orbit.

The Association of School Business Officials International estimates that an average school district of about 3,700 students with a fleet of 40 school buses that serve eight campuses will need nearly $1.8 million in additional funds simply to reopen for the coming school year. Over $67,000 would be needed just to pay for foggers that disinfect the school buses and hand sanitizer for the students and drivers.

Despite pledges in some states to save education budgets from cuts, student transportation has never commanded the deserved amount of attention in the first place. Should we expect things will change? Yes, COVID-19 has illuminated the need for more transportation money, but the same goes for most other school district departments and programs.

The federal CARES Act was designed in part to help bail out school districts, but not surprisingly student transportation is not mentioned by name. Yet in addition to professional development and cleaning supplies, it does stipulate that districts can use funds for “activities” that address the unique needs of children with disabilities and low-income students. These include students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth.

In many areas of the nation, I would suggest, students who have been traditionally marginalized are this industry’s bread and butter. This is not meant to discount other school bus riders. There are school districts and states that have the wherewithal to continue serving all students, or at least increase ridership eligibility. And, yes, the industry line is that all students should ride the yellow school bus because of its unparalleled safety record and the testing and certification of its yellow army of drivers and staff.

But the current financial crisis is proving to be worse than that of the Great Recession. The school bus driver pool is becoming even shallower in some areas, and hard decisions linger amid physical distancing requirements and the health screening of students. Perhaps it’s time to focus on special education and low-income populations, at least in the most cash-strapped school districts and for the short-term.

I realize it’s not that easy. But school districts have an opportunity to effect change rather than simply respond to it. School buses for decades have been viewed as the great equalizer in terms of access to a public education. The industry became largely what it is today on the back of desegregation busing from the early 1970s through the 2000 aughts. School buses continue to provide that promise today, when the world needs healing, acceptance and equity more than ever. But student transportation leaders must also be realistic and reasonable in providing service. A holistic approach to transportation is necessary.

Where and when appropriate, directors can utilize third-party transportation providers to assist in the mission. The Safe Routes to School program could receive a big funding boost in this summer’s federal transportation reauthorization. School buses are safer than walking and biking to school, yes, but does that mean student transporters can’t or shouldn’t forge mutually beneficial partnerships?

Student transporters need to mesh strategy and tactics, to overcome the many obstacles laid out before them. A goal can still be to get as many students as possible on the school bus. However, shouldn’t the real objective be to serve as a conduit to getting as many students as possible to school, and then focus efforts on the students who encounter the most challenges in getting there?

If that is all accomplished via the yellow school bus, outstanding. If it can’t be, student transporters have the expertise and passion to promote and advocate for the safest and most fiscally responsible service among the remaining options.

Editor‘s Note: As reprinted from the July issue of School Transportation News. 

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