Ep. 165: Transporting School Choice Students – A Chat with the Authors

March 11, 2020

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, Mike McShane and Michael Shaw, authors of our latest report Transporting School Choice Students, discuss inspiration, methodology and findings. Click here to read the full report.

Drew Catt: Hello and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects, and I’m here to talk about our newest research, a report called Transporting School Choice Students: A Primer on States’ Transportation Policies Related to Private, Charter, and Open Enrollment Students. I’m here today with authors Mike McShane, EdChoice’s director of national research, and Mike Shaw, EdChoice’s research analyst, to have a conversation about the report. It’s afternoon here in the EdChoice studio, so we can’t call this the Mike and Mike in the morning podcast, but thanks nonetheless for joining me today, Mike and Mike.

Mike McShane: Thanks for having us.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, Drew, it’s a pleasure.

Drew Catt: All right, so from here on out, I’ll just use a full names so the listeners, even though they may know whose voice is whose, just to make it a little easier on everyone. Let’s start off with Mike McShane. Would you mind telling us why we did this research and what inspired it?

Mike McShane: Yeah, absolutely. As school choice programs grow across the country… and this is school choice sort of defined broadly, right? Inter-district choice programs where children are allowed to transfer out of their public district of residence into another one. As charter school programs and as private school choice programs grow, a whole series of issues start to emerge around the kind of infrastructure that supports those choices. I know it’s something that we at EdChoice are really interested in and take lots of different looks at, but one of the biggest ones is transportation.

If we are going to open up new opportunities for students, can they actually get there? If we allow students all this freedom to attend schools but they don’t have the means of transportation, it’s kind of a false choice or it can be a false choice. We were interested in at least understanding the landscape. Before we even try and propose solutions or talk about policy implications, we just kind of wanted to know what is the law on the books in states currently. What are the laws with respect to requirements that states might have for students who transfer across district lines? What are the requirements for children in charter schools? And what are the requirements for kids attending private schools?

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s great. And with all of those different audiences, who would you really say that this research is for?

Mike McShane: I think there’s a couple people who could really benefit from this research. Obviously, policymakers who are interested in trying to create that kind of supportive infrastructure for school choice. We offer a lot of information about what different states are doing, so they’d have the opportunity to look at other states and work with them and see if what they’re doing is working or if it’s helpful.

But I also think researchers could be interested in this. There’s a lot of interest now in these supporting structures around school choice and what’s working and what isn’t, and what helps kids and what doesn’t help kids. But that’s all sort of predicated on knowing what the policies actually are and why the policies are the way that they are. And that’s usually based in some kind of state law. I think it’s going to be a really good foundational piece that I think lots of researchers could use as a starting point before they ask other questions and it’s going to be something that policy makers can use to drum up ideas for improving transportation policy for children in schools of choice.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s great. Now pulling on that thread of state law, Mike Shaw, would you mind telling our listeners a little about the methods and what people can find in the report?

Mike Shaw: Sure, as Mike alluded to and you just mentioned, Drew, this was a higher-level state-by-state analysis and comparison of pupil transportation laws and policies related to choice students. Which, is an interesting question in of itself because if you think of pupil transportation, it’s really a district level and a school level function. They’re often the ones negotiating busing and transportation contracts or helping families figure out alternative methods for getting to schools or even lining up carpooling groups and things like that. With all that being said, it’s safe to say we would have a fair amount to say when it comes to pupil transportation. What we did was we looked at the general pupil transportation statutes of all fifty states to get a broad overview of how pupil transportation is defined. Maybe, not surprisingly, more often than not, really almost exclusively, pupil transportation was defined in terms of public school districts and public school students.

That style wasn’t necessarily surprising but then, when you dig deeper and you use various search terms and search platforms and dig into these code books of statutes, you do see that some states do offer provisions either mandating pupil transportation for charter school students, open enrollment students as well as, private school students or they have conditional transportation requirements for those students. With everyone from students with special needs being able to be transported to schools of choice to those coming from lower-income backgrounds or those zoned to failing schools. We’ve looked at all those statutes and provisions as well as some regulations and some old case law. And then compiled them into various maps and tables detailing where students in a given state can be transported by the districts or because of state mandate.

Drew Catt: All right, with putting together all those tables and the maps, what did you all find? Especially pouring over the laws, are there any states doing a great job of providing transportation for choice students? And on the flip side, what states are not necessarily doing a great job of providing transportation for choice students?

Mike Shaw: I think, like all great policy questions and issues related to education policy, the answer is, it depends. There wasn’t necessarily a great correlation from what we’ve observed between states that might have had more liberal pupil transportation policies related to charter schools as there were to private or open enrollment. But with that being said, we did see quite a few states do mandate pupil transportation on equivalent, or close to equivalent, terms to public school students and their states. There was over a dozen that mandated it for open enrollment students and actually just about half mandated it for charter school students and in some level, equivalent to public school students. Not nearly as many mandate it for private school students but we did see states like Oregon, as well as Alabama, mandating private pupil transportation for a subset of students such as those with special needs or those going to failing schools. The best way to get a glimpse of this is to look at our state-by- state maps and see that there is a lot of variation.

Mike McShane: Yeah, I think what Mike said there at the end is the most important. One of the most important things that… just looking at the landscape of transportation policies across the country. It’s just this big scattershot. Right? Different states have come to very different conclusions and even within states, the decisions that they make regarding charter school students versus private school students versus inter-district choice programs just because, let’s say, a state supports one of those, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would support the other. I think something that’s certainly surprised me as we were doing this research was just the incredible diversity that is out there. With a mix of requirements, allowable uses, requirements for some students and not others, for those transporting some distances and not others. It really is just a big scattershot.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s kind of fascinating. Within that scattershot approach, what are some of the creative or innovative policies that stood out to y’all?

Mike McShane: One of the things that I thought was interesting is places where states say, “Hey look, we will—for someone like a private school student—we will transport you on the traditional public district buses provided that you can go along already establish routes.” If the school bus is already traveling in this direction so what’s the big deal of adding a few more students onto that? I think that that’s an interesting way of trying to look at that problem, trying to work together.

But I think that also states that allow flexibility for charter school leaders and district leaders or private school leaders and district leaders to try and come to some kind of agreement. It would make sense to say, “Hey look, the school district maybe doesn’t have to transport these students entirely on their own dime to non-district schools.” I get that where’d they say, “Hey look, there’s a cost there that we need to have some sort of remuneration for.” Allowing that space for deals to get worked out and say, “Look if you can partner with the private school district then you can share the cost or if you want to partner with the charter school and share the cost. I think that’s definitely something to make it work.” Now, the issue that comes into that is that in places, and this isn’t necessarily something that we dive really deep into in the paper itself, but lots of private schools might not necessarily have the funding to provide transportation.

Charter schools, depending on where they are, might not have the funding to provide transportation. There’s two sides to this which is the ability to work with districts to provide this type of transportation but also to have the support available. Now, there are some private schools choice programs that have thought about this. There are some states, in charter school policy and inter-district policy that have also created that. But it’s sort of two sides of the coin that we have to keep in mind.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, to piggyback off that, I think that the most innovative, if not especially creative, message for standard policies that we’ve observed for the states that did confederate pupil transportation costs within their funding formulas and then allocated those costs, more often than not, to the charter school students than to the other two sectors that we have observed. But they’ve recognized that in a mobile school choice environment, these transportation costs are going to be especially important and they should follow the child as opposed to staying with the home district or school. There were a number of states who did that. Again, we observed it, most regularly in the charter school sector. That was an interesting same-level policy that I think deserves some recognition. I also want to say though, this report it really is a higher-level, like Mike said. Same level look at these policies but none of this precludes districts from working within their own budgets or working with schools and being more of an authorizer or overseer model of the school district rather than purely an operator. And being able to transport a choice student regardless of sector.

One instance of this is Calvert County, Maryland is the only school district or county, I should say, in which private school transportation is authorized in the states. We didn’t actually observe why that is. But there are interesting district level options that are available outside of the state jurisdictional and mandate realms.

Drew Catt: Oh, that’s fascinating. Mike McShane, there’s something that you highlighted that clicked an anecdote in my mind. The phrase of already established routes when talking about districts providing transportation to private school students. I believe that’s something that’s actually on the books here in Indiana. And I have heard, this may be a rumor, so it’s unfounded evidence, anecdotal evidence at that. That if a student has kind of asked to be transported and the district just established a different route so that the student would no longer be on the established route. I think that it makes you think about what the legislative intent is behind some of these transportation policies.

Mike McShane: Exactly. And I think that it’s important to also think about the incentives that are at play. Right? If all the burden falls on the district to figure these things out, you would definitely see that they would have a strong incentive to do the exact type of behaviors that you’re talking about. I think it’s important to recognize that it is costly and it is challenging to transport students. And if you have mobile student population or any of those sorts of things, these are thorny problems that we need to work out and there probably aren’t simple solutions to them. But you’re right—keeping in mind what the intent of the legislation is, keeping in mind the incentive that various funding structures or allowable uses of funding or requirements put in place. Those are the types of things that policymakers need to keep in mind as they figure out ways to try and transport students that are increasingly going to more diverse schools of choice.

Mike Shaw: And all this to say, this report is really just a look at a high level what is on the books regarding pupil transportation laws in states. And that’s not to say that, Drew, like you alluded to, districts can be creative or even be in compliance with laws but not actually operatively transport students of choice. I think this report is an interesting first step at this question and this puzzle. But the next components are certainly going to be [inaudible 00:13:02] and then looking more operatively at how these policies can become actionable for choice families.

Drew Catt: Yeah, along the actionable parts, do y’all have any additional recommendations other than just the things to keep in mind for the folks who actually affect the transportation policies in the states?

Mike McShane: Sure, I think that keeping their eyes on increasing technological solutions that are becoming available. I think a lot of the stuff that undergirds things like ride sharing—it’s not to say that every kid will take an Uber to school in the future. But the types of technology that allow those things to happen I think can definitely impact the way school buses and the way pupil transportation works. I think that there are just lots of people that are trying to apply technological solutions to optimize routes, track buses, link kids to buses, etc. One of the things that I think is important that as states create requirements, create funding streams, but also create regulations around who can transport kids and how they must be transported, all of that sort of stuff, making sure that those thing don’t prevent new and interesting and different ways of pupil transportation from starting in the future. Do the regulations vaguely require to be a yellow school bus that has a central dispatcher? All that sort of stuff might prevent new and innovative things from happening.

Looking both on the funding side as well as the regulatory side to allow for some innovation in this space so that it can start to become less complicated, become less expensive to solve these problems.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, that’s definitely the way things tend to go. As technology advances, I’m curious, personally, and with all the infrastructure challenges we’re facing nationally—and just changes coming that way towards our cities and urban design, in particular—how does pupil transportation requirements fit into that puzzle? I think this might just end up being not just a district or state department of education concentrated issue or question but really an urban planning or county planning issue. And thinking broadly about how to get people to where they need to be whether it be to schools or to jobs or what have you.

Drew Catt: Yeah, these are all going to be interesting things to think about, especially with the increase in technology and the way that transportation and technology merge and a variety of avenues moving forward. Are there any plans to keep this report current as time passes and statutes change?

Mike McShane: I think definitely. I think we’re definitely going to keep an eye on these things. Again, as you’ve brought out, I hope that when this report comes out the people who are actually in these states, as Mike said, this is a high-level look at what the law says. Now, how that law actually trickles down to the practices that are taking place in pupil transportation. It would not surprise me at all if a handful of people reach out to us and say, “Hey, the law says they’re supposed to do X. But they’re actually doing Y and here’s why.” I think there’s definitely lots of opportunity for us in the future to see what the impact of these laws are—how they actually shape the behavior. Do people follow the letter of the law? Do they follow spirit of the law? Definitely something that we’re going to want to keep an eye on and I think these questions around the infrastructure supporting choice are not going away. Keeping an eye on the legal framework so that we can understand the policy contact. It’s something that we’re going to want to keep doing.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, I totally agree with all that and I think it’s a good medium for something like those questions or keeping track of this pretty complex policy is, maybe, more interactive with the maps that we have in the report. Something like that on our website where we have collaborated with other researchers. We’d love to hear back—comments and thoughts on that and other issues.

Drew Catt: That’s great. And here’s a shameless plug. In addition to y’all’s great report, looking at kind of the ingredients that go into the sausage, I am currently working on a national cross-sector parent survey, looking at transportation and the parent experiences of it all. Hopefully, coming down the pike, we can look at both what goes in, in terms of the laws and what comes out in terms of the parent experiences. With that, any additional things to point out, gentlemen, from your report?

Mike McShane: No, I think you’ve pretty much covered it.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, thanks, Drew.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Thank you both for taking the time to be with us in the studio today and thanks for this wonderful piece of research.

Mike Shaw: Definitely. I hope it’s useful.

Drew Catt: All right. With that, I would like to give a hat tip to our listeners for taking the time to learn a little bit more about this new study. To stay updated on the latest school choice research, legislative news and more, please remember to subscribe to our EdChoice Chats podcast wherever you get your podcasts for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats and more. If social media is more your thing, follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. You can find us at @edchoice. Thanks again for listening and until next time, take care.