Ep. 221: Commuting Concerns with Drew Catt and Mike McShane

November 17, 2020

The author of our latest report, Commuting Concerns, discusses the process used to collect responses, inspiration for the report, and more.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, and I have on the line today Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects. He is the author of a new paper, Commuting Concerns: [A Survey of U.S. Parents on K–12 Transportation Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic]. Drew, great to chat with you today.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Thanks for taking the hard job of asking all the questions. It takes maybe a good 10 to 20 minutes of focus time to think of the right questions for this podcast, which I know can be a big hurdle compared to the, I think about 13 months that I spent working on this project.

Mike McShane: Well look, I think this is one of those cases where the title gives away a bit of the story. So let’s talk about this paper and the 13 months that you spent on it. So what did you do to collect the data for this report?

Drew Catt: Yeah, and that’s not 13 months of spending time on it because yeah, the data collection takes up a big part of it. So this was another survey that we partnered with Hanover Research based out of Arlington. We went back and forth. I designed the questionnaire, they tweaked a couple of questions, added a couple of questions and then yeah, they had it put out to a panel provider. So the data was initially collected at the end of 2019. I know that sounds and feels so long ago, but yeah, we first really started asking questions about the 2019-20 school year. So really starting in the fall of 2019, what parents were thinking about for transportation. They went back and added some demographic data towards the end of the year. And then they did the humans’ work of taking a stab at a lit review and getting all the data together for me to play with and work with. And by play with, I mean making charts. I don’t tweak the data to certain conclusions or any means. When I say play with the data, I mean, “Hey, let’s find the right chart to make this pop.”

So, then we had a little, I guess, making lemonade out of lemons. So, I think it was about March or April, we were really getting to the… I was really pushing towards the final draft of this report. Got some great reviewer feedback from some external folks and then just having a meeting with our comms team. And they were like, “Yeah, this is a report about school transportation, and nobody is going to school right now because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Could you possibly go back and ask a couple questions that are maybe more pertinent to life as we know it now?” Like, “Yes. Yes. That’s a great idea that I should have thought of by myself already.” So, thank you for making my project greater. And yeah, anytime anybody also gets their eyes on something that I work on because they always inevitably make it better than I could do myself.

So that’s a long way of saying that we collected the data via surveys. We did the initial fielding in 2019 and did the follow-up this past spring into early summer. So really trying to get to know how transportation plans have shifted from the beginning of the school year to what transportation currently looks like for their student, whether or not they’re attending school hybrid, fully in person or fully virtually. So yeah, it’s all some great survey data. We did go back during the 2020 fielding, and we had Hanover add a nationally representative sample, which was not the purview of the original survey since we were wanting to over-sample some choice parents. I also had a blog post that we put up over this last summer that has the link to the full questionnaire with the full nationally representative sample, and that’s specific to more transportation in fall of 2020 as it relates to COVID.

Mike McShane: So, let’s go back to the before times. So before all the coronavirus stuff happened, what prompted you to one to write about school choice and transportation?

Drew Catt: Thanks, Mike. That’s a great question. I think a lot of it came from well, as you well know, the research team in general was looking at the transportation puzzle and really how parents view transportation being a big aspect of that. So it’s not only, hey, okay, we have this cool thing called school choice, whether it’s a voucher, a tax-credit scholarship, ESA, or even if it’s a charter or a magnet school, and it’s all right. So, kids are used to taking the yellow school bus or walking or biking or having someone take them. What happens if it’s not their traditional public school? What if that yellow school bus doesn’t automatically follow them everywhere because you don’t live in Pennsylvania where the school takes you to every school, even the private ones?

It’s really finding out what the perceived barriers within transportation were, because we’ve heard anecdotally for several years that transportation can be a barrier to school choice. So yeah, it’s really diving into that and seeing what it was from a parent’s point of view in terms of transportation barriers for school choice and just what transportation in general looks like.

Mike McShane: What do we know from the existing literature, so research that was done before this, about school choice and transportation?

Drew Catt: Yeah. I think it can be summarized into a few different lessons that we learned. The first one is that choosing a school other than your zoned traditional public school usually means longer commutes, which makes sense. The reason you’re zoned to the school you’re zoned to is because it’s hopefully close to your house and yes, it is possible that there is a private or charter school closer to your house than the traditional public school that you’re zoned to attend, but I have a suspicion that that’s more likely not the norm. So, the second lesson was that there is a relationship between choice and commute length that is mediated by income and race. So with a lot of things with education, income and race have some cut points separating who can more easily access what, and some of that can even come down to having a car with air conditioning or even the bus, whether or not the bus is able to have an air conditioned climate for its students during the, depending on where you live, the hot and humid muggy months of August and September when school is really getting started.

Another thing that really stood out from the previous literature is that the availability and cost of transportation, and not just distance and time, can impact a family’s decision of where to send their child to school. So it’s not only, “Hey, can we access this transportation, whether it’s a neighbor or utilizing a public bus,” but really like, “Okay, how long does it take for a child to get to the school?”

One example that stands out from my previous job working as a private family foundation program officer, as I was talking to some high schooler at a YMCA in the Boston area and just asking him, “What’s it like for you to go to school?” He’s like, “Well, I take this bus to this bus stop and then this bus then this rail.” And when all was said and done, he was in five different vehicles and took an hour and a half one way. He had also chosen the most academically rigorous high school that he could get into in his area. So kudos to him for taking the initiative and doing that. He realized that it was a sacrifice that he himself was making. Not everyone lives in urban areas where that’s possible. So that definitely can be a sticking point.

Another thing in the previous literature, because I don’t want to dwell too much on this, get into the findings some, and I’ll speed up a little. Parents of school leaders worry about safety when it comes to public transportation. Providing transportation to students who attend schools other than their zoned school involves high costs and budget strain for districts and CMOs. So even if, like IPS is more open enrollment, so my child could go to the zoned school down the street, or we could go to the school that may be a better fit for him and it may be the furthest one from our house. And yeah, it’s understandably going to cost more money for the school district to transport my student as far away from the house as possible, rather than as close to the house as possible.

In addition to cost, logistics can be a huge headache. One thing that pops out in my mind is a lot of the work that John Valon and his colleagues have done looking at school bus transportation in New Orleans, and in that choice environment where it was neighbors that were going to neighboring schools and taking two different buses to get there. So yeah, there’s definitely a challenge there. And then specifically within the charter sector, charters and charter management organizations, or CMOs, have to develop their own bus routes and transportation systems within cities because they don’t always have the ability to tap into the districts like they would in an innovation district.

Mike McShane: So, you mentioned commute times in there. I think you’re right. We should get into some of the things that you actually found. So maybe we’ll start with commute times. On page eight, you write, “The average amount of time parents in our sample said their child travels,” and this is one way, “to school is 15.9 minutes. That’s 16.2 minutes for traditional public school students, 16.8 minutes for charter school students, 15.5 minutes for religious private school students and 14.1 minutes for non-religious private school students. However,” and this is something that really stood out to me, “there were some students who were reported to travel more than two hours one way to get to their school. The maximum travel times were 130 minutes for a traditional public school student, 125 minutes for a charter school student, 120 minutes for a non-religious private school student and 76 minutes for a private religious school student.” Can you talk a little bit about this? Are lots of kids spending lots of time getting to school?

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s a great question. One thing that I didn’t really split out, just because the report’s already at 36 pages and anyone is more than happy to take the data set from this and do additional analysis. Just shoot us an email, research@edchoice.org. Yeah, so that’s regardless of mode. So some of that may be two hours on a school bus with a lot of stops because you’re the first student picked up. That was my case growing up on a farm. I was the second student picked up and it would take about an hour and a half to get to school, even though the school was maybe 10 miles from my house. I got some extra naps in, in the morning. Got my homework done if it wasn’t finished. So made it what I could. That’s a lot different than a student that’s walking to school and taking that long. And a student walking to school for 20 minutes, maybe the same as driving for two. So yeah, I think mode definitely matters there.

But I think the fact that some of those maximum times are so long just shows literally the lengths that students and families are willing to go to, to attend a school that they deem to be the best fit for them. Going back to the Indiana Choice Deserts report that I did with our colleague, Mike Shaw, we saw that even with the choice deserts, we had the 30 minute drive time cut off. There was one student that lived in southern Indiana. We didn’t see exactly where they lived, just the residential district that it took them about 35 minutes, most efficient routing possible, crossing the river into Kentucky, crossing over the river again back into Indiana. So even then, you’re driving through a different state in order to take the fastest route, which yeah, I’m not sure to what extent school buses are allowed to do that on a bus route when they’re on those state borders. And I would assume that a lot of the longer routes are for school buses, which we can get into school bus route times later.

Mike McShane: So, you title a section, Plans and Reality, wherein you describe what parents plan to do to get their kids to school and what they actually do. So what do parents plan to do and what did they actually do?

Drew Catt: With the exception of the traditional public school parents, usually it’s a household resident driving the student that’s planned, which whether or not that’s the parents, whether that’s a sibling or whether it’s the student themselves. Over half of the religious private school parents said that that’s how their child got to school and a little less than half of the charter and non-religious private. And then we did split out. We didn’t do it as scientifically as we could have. We more or less asked, does your child qualify for free or reduced price lunch? We did have some income cutoffs in case the parents didn’t know, but of those who did not qualify for free and reduced price lunch, they are more likely to have a household resident drive them. Whereas if you do qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, you are more likely to take the bus overall.

But then again, that’s, so the plans versus reality. So we asked what the plan was at the beginning of the semester, and then when we checked back in that later in the fall, we asked, “Has this changed? Has the mode changed? And if so, why?” Really getting at that barrier of, what are you trying to do versus what did you end up doing? And why did you change? So of the parents who did change, whether it was they had planned on the bus and then had a household resident drive them or vice versa, or the student was walking to school and then the walk was too long, so they rode their bike or had somebody drive them instead. So, about a third of the 167 parents said changes in schedule, such as the planned driver’s work schedule changed, followed by a quarter of those who responded said it was a safety concern with planned transportation. And that actually showed up when it was basically all forms of transportation, household resident driving them, public transportation, school bus, et cetera. So safety really popped out across all of those.

Mike McShane: That’s what I wanted to ask there about parent concerns. I mean, that’s another thing that comes into that. So what are some of the concerns that parents have about getting their kids to school?

Drew Catt: Yeah, I think safety is one that stands out the most. I was expecting to see this because this is something that we’ve seen in other parents survey work. The thing that stands out is more than scores, Ben Scafidi’s work with James Kelly out of Georgia. They showed that yeah, parents are choosing these schools because of safety. We know that safety and choice from years of national survey work that we’ve done, safety and choice does go hand-in-hand for quite a few families that are out there. So I wasn’t surprised to see that the same held true when it comes to transportation. Safety was a big factor and the scheduling was a big factor. I mean, I’m sure if a single parent was working third shift, I’m sure the schedule of the transportation and the availability of the transportation means more to them than say somebody who works from home.

Mike McShane: So you started doing this survey research, as we mentioned, before the coronavirus happened. And then obviously, as like with all things, everything started changing in March and April. So how has the pandemic affected pupil transportation?

Drew Catt: Yeah, it’s to not my surprise at all, there are fewer parents percentage-wise that are reporting their children taking the bus, whether that’s the yellow school bus provided by the school or public transportation. So there’s actually an increase in those saying that the household resident drives them to school, which when we’re in a time that we’re talking about pods, and not pandemic pods, not specifically talking about learning or education, but in terms of two families that are intermingling and keeping social distance from everybody else, it’s not a surprise to me that more families said, yes, a household resident drives them because, at least for my household, we’re trying to do our best not to have other household members in our cars if possible. So yeah, I can understand why a lot of carpools may have disappeared this past fall.

Mike McShane: In the conclusion, you write, “Transportation and school commute times are both significant factors that impact families’ decisions regarding whether to participate in school choice and in which school they enrolled their child.” So what can policymakers and practitioners do to help make transportation easier for school choosing families?

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think part of it is be cognizant that not all schools even offer transportation in the first place. So that was something that stood out to me was the percent of families that said that their school does not provide any transportation whatsoever. And that was 15-20 percent of the traditional public-school families, depending on if you’re looking at the lower income or the higher income. And those that said the district does provide transportation at an extra fee. So that’s even with the traditional public school, charter school, religious, private, non-religious, et cetera, that regardless of sector, there is not a single schooling sector that says transportation is provided to every student for free, even if the law stipulates that it does. So yeah, that may be part of it, is that so many of the voucher programs and the tax credit scholarship programs, the way that the law is codified into statute specifies that the monies can be used for tuition and fees.

If transportation is not part of those fees or that tuition, then the family has to go above and beyond what the scholarship or voucher provides and pay more money out of their own pocket to ensure that the student can get to that school. Now, there are some programs that do allow for transportation to be part of the allocation, especially within an education scholarship account program. So that does operate within school choice. There are a lot of charter schools that even if they are not able to provide their own transportation, especially if they’re able to contract with the district to provide that transportation, that is also something that is good for families, but again, we’re still mostly talking urban areas. So when we talk about suburban, small town and rural school choice, that’s where I think transportation becomes that much more important and can become that much more expensive.

Mike McShane: Obviously this is a super interesting paper. I picked out some of the stuff that I found interesting in it. Are there any other key data points or conclusions that you think perhaps listeners who might not also be readers that we would certainly hope that all of our listeners will also be readers, are there any other key points that are made in the report that you think people should know about?

Drew Catt: That’s a great question. I think one of the things, this is something that I’ve been asking lately and by lately, I mean the past couple of years on parents surveys. So that’s, how long would you be willing to allow your child to commute one way to attend a school that may be a better fit for them? And we put better fit in quotation marks and never provide a definition, leave that up to the respondent’s own interpretation. And just like we found in our parent surveys in Indiana and Arizona and North Carolina, parents are willing to allow their student to travel further than they currently do in order to attend a school that they deem to be a better fit. All that’s to say that parents of all types, of all schooling sectors make a lot of sacrifices in hopes that their child can be in the school or in the educational environment that gives them the best step on their path towards success. And here at EdChoice, choice is a huge component of that, really wanting successful lives and a greater society as an outcome of this choosing aspect.

So, the choice by itself is really part of this and really thinking of how much choice really goes into even a student going to a traditional public school. It’s not only, what school are they going to go to nowadays? Because everyone doesn’t just automatically go to the zoned school anymore, which is, I think create for the choice movement, but it’s not only what school are they going to go to, but how are they going to get there? And this is maybe the school that’s going to be best for my student, but they don’t provide transportation. So what am I going to do? How am I going to get them there? Or even, hey, this school is close to my work. It’s great for me to take my student there, but then they get out of school an hour and a half before I get out of work. How are they going to get home? Or is there a space for them to wait there for me? Or is there a community center that they can go to nearby?

So, it’s not even thinking of the school and the home, but really thinking about the community in a larger aspect and thinking of, what are all the pieces that can fit together? What are all the ways that policy makers and community organizers can think of to really come around the whole family and make sure that every student is able to attend any school in that community or the neighboring community and ensuring that transportation is a consideration as they’re thinking through their choices?

Mike McShane: Well, today on EdChoice Chats, I’ve been chatting with Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects here at EdChoice. He is the author of the new paper, Commuting Concerns: [A Survey of U.S. Parents on K–12 Transportation Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic], which is available right now on EdChoice’s website, www.edchoice.org. Drew, it was great chatting with you today.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Mike. And for those of you that are interested in other COVID-related survey and polling work, stay tuned for the second wave results from our Schooling in America project.