Photo by JD Hardin

Photo by JD Hardin

At the 2017 School Bus eXchange (SBX), my friend and mentor Dr. Linda Bluth shared with participants her thoughts about school reform. She raised two fundamental questions: “Is the school bus industry idling while school reform is on the move?” and “What is ahead for school transportation, as we know it today?”

Bluth challenged the 60 or so people there to think about and discuss the ramifications for pupil transportation of policy discussions about school choice, vouchers, and charter school expansion. She provided SBX participants with the following brief definitions and advice.

School/Education Reform

Definition: The name given to the goal of changing public education.
Advice/concerns: You cannot afford to be a silent onlooker waiting to learn how school transportation fits into school reform. You should be a respected contributor in federal, state, and local discussions.

School Choice

Definition: K-12 public education options, describing a wide variety of programs offering students and their families alternatives to publicly provided schools. Students are generally assigned by the location of the family residence. School choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs — public, private, charter, home, or other learning environment that parents choose for their children.
Advice/concerns: Safe transportation for all children must be part of the school choice agenda. There is very little national data on the impact of school choice on transportation services.

School Vouchers (Aka Education Vouchers)

Definition: A certificate of public funding for a student at a school chosen by the student (or parents). States have varying eligibility for vouchers, but students from low-income households, attending failing schools, with disabilities, and living in rural areas are the most common voucher recipients.
Advice/concerns: Transportation problems may prevent as many as a quarter of families from enrolling their children in schools of choice. Data on school transportation is not readily available.

Charter Schools

Definition: Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws (the actual laws vary by state). These are publicly funded independent schools established by teachers, parents, or community groups under a charter with a local or national authority. They are “public schools of choice,” meaning they operate with freedom from some of the regulations and requirements imposed on district schools. In September 2017, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $253 million in grants to expand charter schools.
Advice/concerns: The transportation situation for children attending charter schools is complex and must be considered on a state-by-state basis, so learn what it means in your state and ask questions.

Bluth has continued to emphasize that the school bus industry should not take anything for granted or assume the status quo when it comes to pupil transportation in an environment of “reform.”

“How much do we really know about the mode of transportation for students not attending traditional public schools? I think there’s good reason to underscore and safeguard the stability and momentum of safe school transportation as it exists today,” Bluth says. “There is no dispute that reform, revision, and restructuring of public education as it exists today is desirable and necessary, but it’s equally important to remember and balance the gains in safe transportation necessary to meet recommended educational reform efforts.”

The Center on Reinventing Public Education shares Dr. Bluth’s perspective, as noted in a June 2017 report: “Transportation remains a vexing concern in cities that offer students school choice. … A choice system can’t truly be equitable if the best schools aren’t accessible to many students.”

Michael Martin is executive director of NAPT.

Michael Martin is executive director of NAPT.

Author/educator Erika Christakis also alludes to this challenge in her passionate defense of public education, published in the October 2017 edition of The Atlantic, explaining that in the last 40 years, “the student body of American public schools has expanded to include students with ever greater challenges. For the first time in recent memory, a majority of U.S. public-school students come from low-income households. The student body includes a larger proportion than ever of students who are still learning to speak English. And it includes many students with disabilities who would have been shut out of public school before passage of the 1975 law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guaranteed all children a ‘free appropriate public education.’”

The general public will likely support some of President Trump’s education agenda — although, when it comes to school choice, the 2017 annual Education Next survey indicated that public support for charter schools fell by 12 percentage points since the previous year — but it’s still too early to gauge overall support for education reform as a whole, especially until issues like transportation inequality come to the fore.

Nonetheless, please bear in mind that the recent collaboration among Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate to pass a tax reform bill is prima facie evidence that they can and are likely to come together on some other issues that have heretofore seemed too contentious.

So, my advice to you this month is simple: Be ready to discuss your views about the impact of education reform on school transportation. Data and relevant anecdotes will be critical to the discussion; start collecting and analyzing them now, if you haven’t already. Forewarned is forearmed.