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California Bill Seeks to Mandate Free Transportation of All Students

Universal free lunch and preschool have been major political talking points on both the federal and state levels in recent years. Now, add to the conversation free transportation from preschool throughout high school, says California state Sen. Nancy Skinner.

That’s the goal and then some of SB 878, nicknamed Road to Success, which Skinner introduced last month. Attempting to capitalize on what media reports have described as a “once-in-lifetime” state budget surplus, the bill would not only change current law by creating a Transportation Access to Public Schools Fund to allow school districts to receive state reimbursement for preschool and nursery school transportation but would also require all public and non-charter schools to offer free transportation to students all the way up through the 12th grade.

SB 878 was referred to Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. If passed and signed into law, it would go into effect for the 2023-2024 school year.

Sen. Nancy Skinner

Skinner, who authored the nation’s first Free School Meals for All in 2021 and is chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said her Road to Success is designed to address falling high school graduation rates, which fell by 0.6 percent to 84.2 percent of high school students obtaining their diplomas in four years, according to data released last month by the California Department of Education (CDE). Meanwhile, the five-year graduation rate rose by 0.3 percent to 87 percent.

Still, Skinner said transportation is the key to more kids getting to school so they can succeed.

While there has been no official data collected by the California Department of Education from school districts or local education agencies pertaining to what students are being transported via yellow school bus or other vehicles for the past decade, anecdotally many districts have cut general education transportation amid budgetary pressures and only provide transportation as a related service for students with disabilities that have Individualized Education Programs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“Getting to and from school should never be a barrier to student success,” she said in a statement on Jan. 25 when announcing the bill. “The research is clear: Students with school-provided transportation miss far fewer days and are more likely to graduate. SB 878, Road to Success, will ensure that not having a ride is never again the reason for a child to miss school.”

She also cited CDE data from November 2020 that breaks down school absenteeism by the reasons cited for students missing school, with lack of transportation being among them. Add to that another first in California, a law that goes into effect this summer that requires most high schools to not start earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow students to get more sleep. The law, said Skinner, makes it harder for many parents to make sure their students get to school.

SB 878 aims to reduce student absenteeism and ultimately increase graduation rates by fully funding school transportation reimbursement, which hasn’t been the case in California for decades. Based on the most recent student ridership records available, which are now a decade old, less than 10 percent of over 6 million K-12 students receive transportation service, the lowest rate nationwide.

It also notes that providing universal transportation as the state transitions to zero-emissions vehicles could eliminate 17 million vehicles on the road and reduce 20 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.


Related: California Gov. Newsom Signs School Start Time Bill Into Law


What Is in the Bill

Specifically, the bill would amend the current education code by allowing funding of preschool or nursery school students in school buses, if appropriated via the annual state budget or another statute.

It would also exempt school districts, county offices of education, organizations operating under a transportation joint powers agreement, and regional occupational centers or programs from providing transportation for first-through, sixth-grade students who live within a half-mile from their neighborhood school, one mile for students in seventh through 12th grade.

But no detail is contained in the current version that indicates if the newly created fund would pay for the purchase of any new buses some school districts would need to account for the increase in ridership.

Added to the education code would be the development of a transportation plan in consultation with local transit authorities and the California Department of Transportation as well as teachers, school administrators, other school staff, local air pollution control districts, parents, and the students themselves. It goes on to state that local education agencies could partner with municipally owned transit systems, which could be a slippery slope to navigate since federal law prohibits federally funded transit agencies from engaging in deliberate home-to-school route service for students, that is when private operators are able to provide the service.

The bill does define eligible drivers. It notes that they must hold a valid state driver’s license “for the appropriate class of vehicle, endorsed for passenger transportation;” have their school bus endorsement from the Department of Motor Vehicles for operating a school bus or pupil activity bus and having completed all classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction; and have the special driver certificate if driving students with disabilities. If the driver doesn’t work for a local education agency, for example, if they work for a transportation network company or another alternative transportation provider, their employer must be able to certify that the driver and vehicle meet the above requirements.


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If signed into law, the state superintendent’s office would be responsible for calculating the reimbursement formula by multiplying the following: The sum of route miles driven daily by all vehicles operated by approved school transportation drivers; the instructional days that eligible students were transported to and from school on scheduled routes; and a per-mile reimbursement rate that has yet to have been set for the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Future reimbursement rates would be adjusted by the percentage change set each May 10 by the state Department of Finance in the annual average value of the change in prices for state and local government purchases that is published by the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 12-month period ending in the third quarter of the prior fiscal year.

Additionally, the program would fund the route miles for high school extracurricular activities — including field trips, athletic events, interscholastic competitions and activities, and other off-campus, school-sponsored events — based on if the students already receive home-to-school transportation. LEAs would also be prohibited from charging for home-to-school transportation.

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