Every student ought to have safe, reliable transportation to a school that meets their needs. Recognizing this, Ohio law has long required districts to offer transportation to all resident students in grades K–8 who live more than two miles from their school—whether that’s a district, charter, private, or STEM school. Though not mandatory, many districts also provide transportation to high school students. Happily, for many parents, the yellow bus does indeed arrive at their home (or thereabouts) twice a day, and they don’t have much reason to worry.
Yet for others, transportation can be a serious headache. And schools, despite their obligations, regularly lament the logistical challenges of providing transportation. Consider just a few of the predicaments highlighted in recent news stories.
- Last year, the Dayton school district threatened to yank yellow bus transportation for the city’s public charter and private school students, a move that would have forced children as young as five years old to use public transit. Thankfully, the district didn’t follow through with the proposal, and the governor shepherded statutory revisions through the budget bill that now forbid such action.
- Taking advantage of a loophole in state law, some districts have denied transportation to students attending non-district schools by declaring it “impractical” without much reason or explanation. In such cases, the district must offer parents a payment in lieu of transportation (PILOTs) to help cover the costs of transporting their child.
- Interdistrict open enrollment students are not entitled to transportation or PILOTs. As radio host Ann Fisher rightly noted in a recent conversation on this topic, that can be a huge barrier for students seeking to attend districts that are more than shouting distance from their home.
- This fall, districts across Ohio (and the nation) are facing serious bus driver shortages, leading to uncertainties about transportation services. In Youngstown, the district had enough drivers but was short on inspected busses, leaving some kids stranded on their first week of school.
Akin to so many educational challenges, there’s no silver bullet that can solve every transportation problem. But there are ideas that could alleviate the pains for parents and schools alike. In fact, a few commonsense solutions were part of this year’s state budget legislation (House Bill 110). Those include a requirement that districts, charters, and private schools work more closely in planning bus routes along with provisions that better ensure the Ohio Department of Education is monitoring and enforcing compliance with transportation laws. Furthermore, the budget substantially increases spending for pupil transportation ($680 million in FY 2023 versus $519 million in FY 2021).
Another important step forward is the increased PILOT amounts that parents receive when their district deems transportation impractical. Previously, parents were entitled to a measly $250—not much more than a dollar per school day. Under the new law, the payment is one-half of the statewide average cost of transportation, which in FY 2021 was $1,077 per pupil. Thus, starting this year, the PILOT will rise to approximately $500 per student. This sum more adequately covers parents’ transportation costs, and it may also discourage districts from declaring transportation impractical in the first place.
Those are all positive moves, but policymakers should continue to explore ways to strengthen transportation policies to better serve all Ohio students. Here are three potential areas for improvement (for more ideas, see this in-depth report from Bellwether Education Partners).
- Allow non-district schools to seek state grants for bus or van purchases. Starting in FY 2021, the state rebooted its school bus purchasing program by appropriating $20 million for this specific purpose (such grants had not been given since 2009). This provided 486 districts an average of roughly $40,000—a modest allotment but a start in helping districts upgrade their fleets. In the recently passed budget, the program got a boost with $50 million allocated over the next two years. Unfortunately, the program is only open to traditional districts, leaving public charter and STEM schools, along with private schools, out in the cold even if they provide their own transportation or are exploring that option. That should change. Non-district schools should be allowed to tap state funds that enable them to purchase buses or vans. This would not only allow these schools to better serve families, but would also relieve districts of their obligations when students receive transportation from their school of choice.
- Explore ways to cut the red tape and fees that bus drivers face. The bus driver shortage raises questions about whether occupational barriers are hampering schools’ efforts to fill vacancies. Are there any regulations or fees that are keeping people away from the job? Indeed, Ohio has a laundry list of bus driver requirements, though some are fairly basic, such as background checks. But the most significant is the need to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) with P and S endorsements. While requiring this credential is prudent and likely necessary, the state should consider waiving the fees associated with CDL licensure. Removing this expense would acknowledge that driving school busses isn’t lucrative—for many, it may be a part-time job—and it could also encourage more people to apply. Moreover, given the CDL requirement, policymakers could examine whether the state’s additional preservice requirements are absolutely necessary. Last, Ohio subjects bus drivers to an annual physical exam, a seemingly overbearing mandate that isn’t required of other school employees. In sum, while bus drivers need a special skill set, policymakers shouldn’t impose unnecessary regulations and costs, lest they discourage people from seeking the job.
- Ensure interdistrict open enrollment students are eligible for PILOTs. Without an entitlement to transportation, the parents of open enrollees bear the responsibility of getting their children to schools or bus stops within their districts of attendance. Though the state could mandate transportation for open enrollees, it’s a tall order for a district to bus students to and from various points across the region. A more manageable solution would allow parents of open enrollees to seek PILOTs from their home district in the same way as families denied bussing under the impracticability exemption. This change would recognize the sacrifice that these families make to transport their children. And though the PILOT wouldn’t enable every parent to exercise this option—the amount, for instance, isn’t enough to cover a car purchase—it would remove a barrier for those who are worried about the daily costs of driving their kids to school.
Making transportation work for all is a tough nut to crack. To its credit, Ohio continues to make progress in this thorny area of policy. With further improvements, policymakers can make transportation more efficient for Ohio schools while enabling more parents to access a school that meets their kids’ needs.