Last November at the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs Conference, tenured faculty member Linda Bluth challenged the school bus industry to develop guidelines for the use of non-school bus vehicles.
The nationwide school bus shortage and increasing numbers of students with individualized education programs (IEPs) that call for transportation as a related service as well as students protected by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has prompted more school districts to consider or use these services. But confusion has abounded.
What is an alternative transportation company? How is it different from a transportation network company? What exactly is a transportation network company (TNC)? And do these companies adhere to state regulations governing student transportation?
The National Congress on School Transportation is looking to provide those answers. A new writing committee was developed this summer, largely at Bluth’s urging during the general session on the relationship between the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and transportation as a related service. Last reauthorized in 2004, IDEA does not mention school bus once but repeatedly references the phrase related services, which “means transportation and such developmental, corrective and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education.” IDEA also states that the decision on vehicle selection for transportation is at the discretion of IEP teams.
These provisions have in part given rise to companies that offer non-school bus vehicles under contract with school districts to transport some students with disabilities and with IEPs that call for transportation as a related service (as well a students experiencing homelessness). For any number of reasons length of ride limits, a more comfortable ride because of a medical condition, the use of specialized equipment, etc. these services have gained in popularity with school districts. But the leading reason cited repeatedly by school districts that School Transportation News has spoken to is school bus driver shortages.
While IDEA explicitly states that cost to school districts must not be a factor when making decisions on providing transportation as a related service, funding or lack of it inevitably creeps in. Certainly, operational efficiency does. For at least the past two decades, an open secret throughout the industry is that school buses are not a fiscally sound mode of transportation for all students, even though federal crash statistics prove school busing is the safest method to get them where they need to go.
Perhaps they live in far-flung parts of the county, where no other students who need transportation live nearby. They might require transportation to a medical or therapy appointment during the school day, and a school bus or driver or both are unavailable. Whatever the reason, school districts have employed various solutions, from entering transportation agreements with neighboring school districts to contracting with taxicab services.
The school bus driver shortage seriously hampers the former and, though still widely used, many transporters have misgivings about the latter. They cite the constant flux of different taxicab drivers because children, especially students with IEPs, need consistency. Enter the alternative transportation company, the TNC, and a growing number of school districts operating in house fleets of sedans, minivans and SUVs for home to school travel that don’t need a driver with a CDL.
Ask any student transporter the difference between an alternative company and a TNC and you are bound to receive incredulous looks. While the two are different, there are similarities. The most succinct comparison to make between the two types is, according to various state laws reviewed by STN, TNCs operate similarly to Uber and Lyft, whereas alternative transportation companies essentially act as brokers for school districts and connect them to local transportation companies and their driver-employees. The comparison is an overgeneralization, but it is a start.
Both companies, however, use drivers that are vetted to a higher degree than those used by Uber, Lyft and other rideshare companies. Uber and Lyft have traditionally had policies that prohibit them from transporting students. But last fall, Boston Public Schools was reportedly in conversations with Lyft about providing student service, despite the TNC stating on its website that passengers must be 18 years old to create an account. BPS did not respond to questions from STN. Then, this past spring, Uber announced it was testing rideshare services in select cities like New York for 13 to 17-year-olds who ride without their parents but are added to a family app profile.
Alternative transportation companies and TNCs working with school districts must vet their drivers to a higher standard than “traditional” app-based, on-demand rideshare services. This includes fingerprint and background checks. Alternative transportation companies either contract with third-party transportation providers that employ their own professional drivers or fully operate the service themselves. Ostensibly, these drivers are full-time employees using company vehicles. TNCs, however, use independent contractors that drive their personal vehicles. These companies also offer proprietary technology that routes the vehicles and tracks them as well as the students.
In either case, proper documentation of background checks and vehicle safety are necessary, making it vital for school districts contracting with these companies to conduct regular audits, several transportation consultants have told STN.
HopSkipDrive is perhaps the most visible TNC to student transporters nationwide. Where required by the state or school district, CareDrivers the company’s term for drivers with at least five years of caregiving experience are required to take advanced in person or virtual training in some areas. To drive for Seattle Public Schools, for example, CareDrivers must complete an annual driver education course and disclose any new criminal charges or convictions as well as moving violations.
Then there is the question of driver training. HopSkipDrive provides what it terms “best practices” for transporting students with IEPs, such as ensuring open communications between parents and school districts, offering consistent drivers when possible (a company representative noted to STN last year that students riding school buses do not always have the same driver), and using an app for planning rides in advance as well as tracking rides in real time.
Meanwhile, EverDriven an alternative transportation company formerly known as ALC Solutions announced an agreement last month with the School Bus Safety Company to develop driver skills and special needs training. Jeff Cassell, the president and founder of SBSC, told STN that the new training is on par with training he developed for school bus drivers. Another company, FirstAlt by First Student, developed special needs training for drivers alongside Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. These companies and others generally must meet federal and state regulations when transporting students.
TNCs, however, follow public utility commission (PUC) rules at the state or local level, as do taxicabs. The Colorado Department of Education is a leading example of a state that has collaborated with the local PUC to develop complementary regulations.
The issue arose two years ago, following a complaint logged by EverDriven. An administrative law judge ruled that HopSkipDrive should be held to a higher standard because it contracts directly with school districts. The CDE took this as a signal it could enforce in its state rules—for school buses, alternative transportation companies and otherwise—on TNCs as well. HopSkipDrive objected, stating that a change in governing bodies would conflict with its business model. Resulting legislation was enacted last year to keep TNCs under PUC purview while also requiring additional oversight.
The Colorado PUC now requires TNC drivers of students to take approved training developed in consultation with CDE that includes special considerations for transporting students with disabilities, emergency preparedness, safe pick-up and drop-off procedures, and CPR and first aid training, which can be done virtually. Drivers must continue to submit to criminal background checks but also complete daily vehicle inspection reports. The law also requires drivers to pass a medical exam and submit a form developed by CDE and the PUC. If the driver has a certified medical exam conducted within the past 18 months, they can submit that instead.
Editor’s note—This article corrects a previous version that inaccurately stated new requirements of the Colorado TNC law. HopSkipDrive can transport students with disabilities as well as any others a school district contract calls for.
Safety Concerns & Next Steps
Despite an increasing number of students with IEPs and students experiencing homelessness, many in the industry are hesitant to use these companies because they do not use school buses or CDL drivers. “Our concerns lie in ensuring the safety and integrity of the vehicles in which our children are riding and the caliber and preparation of the individuals who are behind the wheel of those vehicles,” reads a statement from NAPT. “We are not comfortable compromising on that safety.”
Charles Gauthier is a retired school bus safety specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as well as a retired executive director for NASDPTS. He opined that if Congress had the foresight, it would have extended the federal ban on selling 15 passenger nonconforming vans for student transportation to minivans and SUVs amended in 2005 to ban school districts from purchasing or leasing vehicles with seating capacities of 10 or more. Gauthier also noted that when Congress passed its 1974 School Bus Safety Amendments that led to NHTSA creating the first school bus specific federal motor vehicle safety standards three years later, it directed NHTSA to not consider costs and benefits in regulatory analysis because children are too important.
“If Congress had not deleted the cost/benefit requirement, it’s unlikely any of the school bus specific FMVSSs would have ever been created. And the safety record of school buses would not be what it is,” said Gauthier. “It is these FMVSSs, combined with improved school bus driver training and public awareness programs, which allows the pupil transportation to boast that it is the safest mode of highway travel.”
He argued that school districts using non-school bus vehicles, via a company or operated in house, are violating both the letter and spirit of federal law. “When a crash occurs in one of these alternative vehicles and children are seriously injured or worse, it is a virtual certainty that lawsuits will be brought against all parties involved in allowing these vehicles to be used,” he continued. “And this is where a jury, many of whom are parents or grandparents, will decide if only following the letter of the law is acceptable. If we are honest with ourselves, I believe we already know what the jury will decide.”
Pete Baxter, a retired state director of transportation for the Indiana Department of Education and a past president of NASDTPS as well as a former NCST steering committee chair, said NCST has long been hesitant to include non-school bus vehicles in the National Specifications and Procedures.
Why? Such vehicles are inferior to school buses. They jeopardize student safety,” he commented. “The core mission of all NCST [meetings since 1939] is a about safe transportation of students in school buses. Nothing else. Non-school bus transportation is a state issue. It is not an issue for the school transportation organizations at the national level. To do so undermines the foundations of their credibility.”
NCST delegates will deliberate on the issue in Des Moines, Iowa between May 3-7, 2025. “We want to make sure we come up with guidelines for states to use that are reasonable and that is safe for our children to use,” said Patrick McManamon, the current NCST steering committee chair from Maine, adding that all industry perspectives are welcome.
Private non-school bus operators welcome the debate, as they say they have their own safety data about students in cars and vans. “We are excited to see this committee come together and look forward to collaborating with fellow industry leaders. We’ve been a pioneer for common sense safety standards in alternative transportation,” said Megan Carey, chief development officer at EverDriven. “For nearly 20 years, we have been raising awareness of the need for widespread regulatory standards as well. With the formation of a dedicated subcommittee on alternative transportation, we are thrilled to be in the unique position to help author these nationwide standards, ensuring accessible and safe transportation for all students.
HopSkipDrive said it seeks clarity. “Our hope is that any organization or entity that may seek to publish advice in our industry would begin with understanding how supplemental school transportation options, like HopSkipDrive, meet the needs of schools around the country, while inviting all stakeholders to the discussion,” said spokesperson Campbell Millum. “ We’re always open and eager to expand the understanding of our space as we work to provide the best possible experience for all students.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the October 2023 issue of School Transportation News.
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