Special Needs Transportation

High costs, yes, but valuable returns, too

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on February 1, 2003

Shortly after I joined the staff of SCHOOL BUS FLEET more than eight years ago, I visited a school bus contractor here in Southern California and rode one of its special-needs buses on a morning route. The driver was a courteous, but not especially talkative young woman who went about her business in a methodical way.

That morning we picked up six or seven students, only one of whom I can remember after these many years. He was maybe 7 or 8, and was half-sitting, half-reclining in a wheelchair equipped with a respirator. His parents met the driver at the curb outside their modest home. His nurse or aide also was waiting there and helped to load his wheelchair onto the lift. His parents smiled and provided soothing words of encouragement as he entered the bus. The boy, as I recall, didn’t need the encouragement. Despite the affliction that rendered his body so motionless, he was clearly excited to be riding the bus and on his way to school. I can still hear the rhythmic pumping of his respirator.

It was a long ride, wending through suburban streets and onto the heavily trafficked freeway and then to the school, where teachers and assistants were waiting to lead their charges to their respective classrooms. It never occurred to me back then to consider the high cost of providing this specialized busing, but the reality of special-needs transportation is that it’s very expensive.

$4,418 per special-needs student
According to a survey performed by the Special Education Expenditure Project (SEEP) and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, special-education transportation costs approximately 10 times more than regular-education transportation on a per-pupil basis. During the 1999-2000 school year, districts spent an average of $4,418 per special-education student for transportation and just $442 per student using regular transportation. Overall, special-needs transportation costs about $3.7 billion, more than a quarter (28 percent) of the total pupil transportation spending.

The good news is that a greater percentage of special-education students are using regular transportation services these days. In 1985-86, about 30 percent of special-education students used special transportation services, compared to 14 percent in 1999-2000.

According to SBF’s annual special-needs transportation survey (beginning on pg. 20), approximately 7 percent of transported students are special-needs students. Of those, about 31 percent of special-education students are mainstreamed on regular-education buses and 69 percent receive special transportation. With many, if not most, school districts facing budget shortfalls this year due to the continuing economic slump, pupil transportation has become a target for pencil-sharpening school boards. Special-needs transportation service likely will be protected, but the high cost remains a thorny problem.

Containing costs is problematic
But what can be done to reduce or contain the cost of special transportation?

Mainstreaming, when feasible and when approved under the child’s Individualized Education Program, is one way to reduce the cost of special transportation. School districts providing more site-based programs that serve students at their home schools is another. But there’s not too much more that can be done to trim the costs of special transportation.

Nor do we want to pare special transportation to the bone. School districts should be committed to safe and individualized service to all special-needs students. When I recall the look on the face of the young boy in the wheelchair eight years ago as his bus set off for school, I have to believe that his transportation service, though extremely expensive, was worth every penny.

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