The (Lack of) Data Problem

How do you respond when the superintendent—or worse, the local media—calls and asks for the cost of student transportation?

When it has come time to seek similar information over the past 15 years, among the industry trends I have tracked is the increasing number of “I don’t know” answers we receive via reader surveys. Proof in point: Our “Trends” survey that was administered in January to transportation directors and supervisors on special needs issues.

Total operational budgets are an easy enough figure to arrive to, but the real issue is breaking down the numbers. Thirty percent of responders could not provide a real or estimated number of general or special education students they transport one-way daily via the school bus. A handful of readers said they don’t even transport students with disabilities.

Meanwhile, only about 19 percent of readers could tell us what their actual per pupil spend is for general education students. Worse yet, less than 10 percent could provide a per pupil figure for students with IEPs that require transportation. A handful of readers did provide cost-per-mile or even cost-per-boarding figures, instead.

Surveys being what they are, an imperfect beast, there are bound to be anomalies of data. But to this extent? No one I’ve ever spoken with in this industry can argue with the presumption that student transportation data is grossly lacking. Why is this?

The short answer? Federal, state and local laws and regulations often do not require financial data on student transportation expenditures and reimbursement to be collected comprehensively or uniformly nationwide. That’s a fact that one prominent industry expert explained to me.

The long answer is much more nuanced.

It’s become hard enough for many student transporters to break out costs of regular routes compared to field and activity trips. But the rise of students who have disabilities and are protected by IDEA and students who are homeless, in foster care, or attend charter, choice or magnet schools, is making it difficult to impossible for many districts to arrive at per-pupil costs.

As the expert I spoke with concluded, and which is supported by our survey, many districts are turning to cost-per mile calculations. But by and large, these districts are fortunate to have and correctly use fleet management or other data systems that parse and properly calculate the numbers for them.

In a perfect world, the industry could point to concrete estimates of how much it costs to transport students via the yellow school bus. Instead, the reality is that student transporters continue to do the best they can with incredibly shrinking budgets. As one student transporter in Texas told me recently, the state reimbursement rate for his school district has fallen to below 35 cents on the dollar.

Student transportation has never been truly and fully funded, but these are especially lean years where budgets are concerned. Never have there been so many choices and warring priorities in a battle for finite and shrinking dollars.

In addition, student transportation is historically not a numbers game. It’s about student safety, first and foremost. Much of what the industry accomplishes is driven by professional judgement—and seldom by hard data.

Cost is an important, yet secondary, consideration. This is testimony to the industry’s safety record. As one expert told me, with or without the efficiencies and cost-effectiveness we all strive for, the nation’s student transportation community does an exemplary job of protecting children.

In the grand scheme of things, the problem of lacking data may not be the problem, as much as it may be an annoyance, albeit a major one. Or that not every issue or question can be fully-tracked and correctly counted. That certainly can present challenges, when faced with school administration, media or parental scrutiny.

Like with anyone, student transporters want to have all of the answers. But that is not a realistic expectation amid mounting budgetary and personnel pressures. The true dilemma is the lack of full funding, the recognition of school busing being integral to proper child education in the 21st century and the resources student transporters need to report the intricasies of their jobs.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the March 2019 Editor’s Take.