NAPT News & Views — We need a national school bus policy

Mike Martin and Barry McCahill
Posted on June 11, 2013

In the February 2013 issue of Spirit, Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine, company Chairman, President and CEO Gary Kelly opines that the U.S. needs a national airline policy.

“The U.S. airline industry plays a vital role in the overall health of our nation’s economy,” Kelly says. “It’s hard to identify a single sector that does not benefit — either directly or indirectly — from strong and healthy airlines.”

Southwest is a member of a trade group called Airlines for America that launched a campaign to emphasize the industry’s economic impact and to argue for a national airline policy that would help keep airline ticket costs down and enhance the travel experience.

Central to the group’s lobbying effort is an initiative to revise federal tax policy, specifically what Kelly calls “punitive” ticket taxes that amount to about 20% of the price for a typical domestic flight. He notes that this tax is greater than that imposed on alcohol and other “sin” taxes that seek to discourage rather than encourage usage.

In short, Kelly wonders why the tax system is being used to discourage travel that is both essential to the public and critical economically.

This raises a very good point that’s also applicable to the pupil transportation industry. Re-read the quote in the second paragraph above and substitute “school transportation” for “airline” and “airlines.”

We, too, need a national school transportation policy that underscores the critical connection between classroom learning and efficient, reliable and safe student transportation. And, we need stable funding instead of the “let’s make a deal” maneuvers that occur in cash-strapped state legislatures.

While we’re not fighting a federal tax, the reality is the nation’s troubled economic situation has the same effect on our industry. While political Washington harrumphs about “economic cliffs,” “sequesters” and “continuing resolutions,” out where yellow buses roll this gobbledygook translates into two words: operational uncertainty.

A national school transportation policy could help correct this. We’re not talking about a laundry list of directives from the federal government to our industry — quite the contrary. We simply need a compelling statement from the government that pupil transportation is critical to our education system and worth protecting.

It might also emphasize our compelling safety record, which is the best in the transportation industry. We help to reduce traffic congestion and emissions, and for many working parents, we are a critical service.

Education is always stated as a national priority. So, too, should be transportation to and from the place of learning. Currently, there is little said at the national level to emphasize this value proposition.

When was the last time you saw a significant national news story about school buses leading the entire transportation industry in safety? Or, a story about how hampered public education would be without the yellow bus?

Ours is an industry of wheels, but seldom do we get much traction or grease.

It’s not for lack of trying to tell our story. The media reality is that it’s not the same when the request comes from us — the impetus must come from the national policymakers and statistic-keepers. They send the smoke signals about national priorities.

When budgets get tight, we often fall into the “nice to have but optional” hopper. What could change this? A national school transportation policy.

Here’s our simple request: We would like a policy statement from the White House and from Congress that underscores the value of school bus transportation, reminding governors and state legislators that cutting school bus service would be a significant safety and educational tradeoff. And we would like it to be repeated periodically so it gains resonance.

Finally, how about fostering more coordination of the federal regulatory and policy apparatus? There are at least five cabinet departments that impact our industry: Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy, Education and Homeland Security. Each imposes its regulations without regard to the burdens of the others.

While pupil transportation is not funded by the federal government, it is strongly impacted by federal regulations and policies. Improved cooperation among federal agencies would help to bolster pupil transportation’s vital role in the education equation.

We transport nearly 25 million passengers twice every school day and another 5 to 7 million each school day on field and activity trips. We dwarf the airlines and all other forms of transportation in this respect. Regardless of where you live, school transportation is an essential public service.

There’s a federal program called “Essential Air Service” that guarantees a minimal level of scheduled air service to certain communities that otherwise would not have it because it’s not profitable. Isn’t it time for a national policy that promotes school bus transportation as essential to America, too?

Related Topics: NAPT

Comments ( 2 )
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  • Dan Luttrell

     | about 5 years ago

    Where there is a demand for a product or service someone or some company will fill the needs. History shows the rise and fall of the numbers of children killed in and around school buses. When experienced people retire, die, or simply leave the school transportation industry for different jobs - new people come along and surprisingly thinks school bus safety just happens. Well - many children over many years died and in the horrible process of accident investigations that the school bus industry gains knowledge from the results of investigations of what caused such deaths. Responsible people in the industry learn from the cold hard facts and respect the fact that some had died for us to learn such facts. I can understand why the airline and school bus transportation relates as to safety of the passengers transported. I don't see how school systems will escape the budget cuts facing America as a nation. The run-a-way spending habits of government has developed an attitude that tax payers will always be willing to pay for continued services. I think today - most of us tax payers - even if we are school employees or not - expect better service and stewardship over existing school budgets as they are instead of continuing the yearly increases of more run-a-way budgets. As an example: back when our fleet of buses were all gasoline engines and the mileage - if you were lucky - was an average 5 miles per gallon, the newer buses bought were diesels with an average 8 to 9 miles per gallon actually cut the fleet fuel bill almost in half. Then as we all know the price of fuel and anything associated with petroleum increased as well. Another is to monitor the actual student counts of all bus routes. If a school bus is not using 80% or more of the available seating capacity then you could actually combine a couple of routes together and not need the expense of running almost empty buses - if you keep good student counts. Yes, school bus safety is second to no other form of trans

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