Beyond The Bus: Focus Grouping The Future of K-12 Transportation

When people think about kids getting to and from school, the image that likely comes to mind first is the traditional and iconic big yellow school bus.

That image may evolve, however, as the pandemic and growing educational options for families change the logistics of the school experience. Will parents continue sending their kids to a school building, or will they embrace remote learning or microschooling? Are parents willing to transport their kids—or find ways to transport them—to schools that don’t offer transportation?

As part of our ongoing effort to explore policy areas that may hinder the expansion of educational opportunity for all families, EdChoice recently gathered a diverse group of thought leaders to talk about current school transportation challenges and potential solutions so that we can work with our state and national partners to craft solutions for a more choice-friendly future.

The group included researchers, school leaders, policy advocates and parent activists.  The goal was simple: share current information about school transportation and have people who engage with the issue on a regular basis offer insights that we can share with our state and national partners.

This focus group approach pairs well with our original research on this topic.  In March of 2020, EdChoice released Transporting School Choice Students, which summarizes statutes and identifies some limitations and challenges that states face as school choice options continue to grow and families continue to need and expect transportation solutions. In November of 2020, EdChoice released Commuting Concerns, aimed at uncovering families’ school transportation experiences, their preferences and how the pandemic has affected their opinions on school transportation.

We shared these reports with the participants—and then we listened.  Here are some of the key takeaways our panel of thought leaders shared with us.

1. Colleen O’Grady from School Choice Ohio reminded us that organizing school transportation is really difficult. A former public school board member, she has worked on routing issues in the past and spoke to the challenges that are involved. She also reminded us of perhaps the most obvious but important things to consider. Like just about everything in education “One size does not fit all!”

2. While private sector options and opportunities are growing, Kristin Blagg from the Urban Institute pointed out that policy leaders should remember that private sector solutions and public sector solutions are inherently funded differently.

3. One of the more interesting data points to come out of recent research was that less than 40 percent of students actually use traditional public school transportation. This was true even before the pandemic. While no one could identify why so few families actually use the “free” transportation service, several in the group indicated they would be interested in surveying their own constituencies to find out more.

4. The group discussed ways that technology or other ideas that might be used to help schools better assess the need for transportation. Several ideas emerged, from creating an app that would let parents signal their need for transport on a real-time basis, to the idea of schools offering a credit to parents who opt out of transportation all together. Mike Martin of the National Association of Pupil Transportation pointed out that schools must overcome an enormous technology and data challenge to innovate within the existing traditional system. He also pointed out that while as individuals we live in an “Uber world” where individual vehicles can be routed quickly to pick people up, most school buses are built to hold 60-70 students and operate on a fixed route.

5. Several people pointed out that there are myriad federal and state regulations that must be navigated and changed to really innovate within the current system.

6. Collaboration between schools and districts is rare. EdChoice’s Mike McShane identified Kansas City, Mo., as a place where schools in the charter sector work together to transport children. However, Mike Rosenberg of the Center of Innovative Education Solutions noted that despite its reputation as a leader in innovation, Indianapolis, with 11 school districts and 50 charter schools, sees almost no partnering to more efficiently transport kids to school. Jenn Schiess from Bellwether Partners and author of several transportation studies mentioned that Boston has attempted to transport all public and private school students with very mixed results.

7. Charles Woods, an experienced public and charter school leader in Phoenix, pointed out that the structure of the choice program in Phoenix has created interesting transportation issues. Since students can come from anywhere in the city, families have to rely on public transportation as well as pre-determined drop-off points like Boys and Girls Clubs where the schools can pick students up.

Like all things in education, there is no simple answer to the challenges inherent in school transportation; however, everyone agreed families will need transportation options to get children to whatever learning environment they choose.

More information and innovation is needed to make the system as family-friendly as possible, and we look forward to being a part of that discussion and offering up solutions that empower families with the tools they need to make the best educational choice for their children.