A school bus in the city (Wikimedia Commons)
Challenged by reduced bus capacity due to social distancing and strained budgets, school districts face difficult decisions about school busing this fall. How can districts allocate scarce busing resources to best support students? Some districts, like Dayton, Ohio, are considering eliminating bus service for charter schools. Others would go farther, proposing to limit bus service to students for whom it is legally mandated -- those with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and those living in temporary housing -- leaving other students to walk, use public transit or private transportation.
Our work suggests that the impact of such cuts would fall disproportionately on low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, and reduce educational opportunity for students living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Although cutting school bus service may seem like an “easy” way to save money, educators and policymakers should wield the budget knife carefully.
Buses are Important
While many downplay the importance of school buses in cities with high density and robust public transportation systems, our work in New York City highlights the significant role school buses play in urban districts. School buses transport students with disabilities to appropriate schools, help children living in temporary housing avoid the disruption of transitory school changes, transport students who live far from their neighborhood school, and enable low-income children in disadvantaged neighborhoods to access higher quality schools (including charters).
All Kinds of Students Take the Bus
According to 2017 ridership data, more than 115,000 K-8 public school children take a school bus in New York City. Nearly half have bus service mandated as part of their IEP or under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which requires districts to provide homeless students with transportation to their origin school. Eliminating bus service for these students is neither legal nor desirable.
The remaining 60,000-plus students who take the bus are eligible for service because they live outside their school’s “walk zone” – a half mile for students in grades K-2, a mile for students in grades 3-6, and 1.5 miles for grades 7-8. These students are also offered the option of a Metrocard, which allows free use of public transit, but choose to ride the school bus instead. They include a racially diverse mix of students from all five boroughs, and a majority are from low-income households.
Roughly 60 percent of school bus-riding students attend a charter or magnet school or another neighborhood’s zoned school that offers a preferred program. Among these “choice school” students, those who ride the bus are significantly more likely to attend a ‘better’ school (with higher performing students) outside of their neighborhood than students attending choice schools close to home. These students are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, suggesting the school bus serves to reduce racial/ethnic disparities in access to good schools.
Where to Find Savings?
Let More Kids Walk
New York City can expand current walk zones to match those used by other large urban districts. In Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia, for example, even the youngest students must live more than a mile from school to receive bus service and older students more than 1.5 miles. If New York City followed suit, expanding the walk zones to one mile for K-2 students and 1.5 miles for grades 3-6, the number of school bus riders would drop by roughly 35 percent.
Let Older Students Rely on Public Transit
Most students living outside the middle school walk zone are only offered Metrocards and not school bus service, with options often determined by the school principal. Accordingly, roughly four out of five middle school students who live outside the walk zone already use public transit. Eliminating the bus for middle school students would decrease bus ridership by approximately 10,000 students.
Eliminate Busing to Charter Schools
Students attending charter schools currently receive the same bus service as students attending traditional public schools and are subject to the same eligibility rules. Expanding walk zones would reduce the number of charter school students taking the bus, but a sizable number would still live far enough away to be eligible for bus service. Eliminating bus service to charter schools entirely – as Dayton is considering – would reduce bus ridership by about 20 percent, roughly 90 percent of which would be Black or Hispanic students.
Assessing the Costs and Benefits
While the direct financial consequences of reducing school bus service may be clear, there will also be a set of unintended benefits and, inevitably, costs. As for benefits, reducing bus service may encourage more students to walk or use “active transportation,” such as biking or skateboarding, with positive effects on physical activity, time spent outdoors, and reductions in obesity.
As for costs, reducing bus service may increase reliance on public transit, which could expose students (or other riders) to an increased risk of COVID-19. In another vein, whether students walk or use transit, the lack of supervision on the commute may pose additional safety risks. Finally, families faced with difficult commutes to a choice school may be compelled to move their child to a school close to home, causing educational disruption and, potentially, a less appropriate educational setting for their child. These losses are likely to be particularly large in low-income Black and Hispanic communities already hard hit by COVID-19.
Weighing the benefits and costs is difficult because of so much uncertainty around transmission and the modality of instruction in the fall. Our take is that, on balance, eliminating all service to charters would entail substantially higher educational costs than expanding the walk zone. Reducing the availability of school buses to middle schools is also appealing, particularly because larger walk zones would significantly reduce the number of students who would even be eligible. Of course, exceptions will have to be made to accommodate unusual individual circumstances, such as hazardous walking routes. For many students, however, getting off the bus would be neither onerous nor detrimental to their education. It may even do them some good.
by Amy Ellen Schwartz, Sarah Cordes, Jeffrey Zabel & Christopher Rick.
Schwartz is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Chair in Public Affairs at Syracuse University, Professor of Economics and Public Administration and Director of Transportation Research at the IES funded REACH Center.
Cordes is an Assistant Professor of Policy, Organizational, and Leadership Studies at Temple University and a Research Partner with the IES funded REACH center.
Zabel is a Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the MS Program in Data Analytics at Tufts University. He is the Co-Editor of the Journal of Housing Economics.
Rick is a doctoral student in public administration at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University.