To Fight Chronic Absenteeism, It’s Time to Rethink the Yellow School Bus

Martin: Keeping kids in school means finding new ways to get them there, whether it's fare cards, vans or technology that makes routes more efficient.

This is a conceptual photo of a retro blueprint of a school bus.

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America’s chronic absenteeism crisis is partly a result of traditional thinking about school transportation.

Millions of students ride a yellow school bus every day, and for the majority of them, it works well. However, many districts that rely on school buses are wrestling with a significant shortage of drivers, most of whom work part-time, split shifts for relatively low wages. 

In an August 2023 study, 92% of schools surveyed reported that driver shortages constrained their transportation operations, and 40% said they have been forced to reduce bus services. School leaders recognize the impact these transportation challenges are having on attendance and academic performance: Nearly three-quarters of school leaders in the same study say they see a correlation between access to transportation and attendance, especially for students most at risk of being absent in the first place, including those with learning disabilities, from low-income families, experiencing homelessness or in foster care.

According to a report from SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education, the nationwide shortage of school bus drivers has had an outsized impact on students who lack a permanent place to live. These young people “often experience frequent or unanticipated changes in living situations, including moving across district boundaries,” the group wrote in the report. “As a result of driver shortages, it can be difficult for school … transportation departments to accommodate last-minute changes or route adjustments, often causing students to miss part or all of a school day.”

Local, state and federal policymakers must think carefully and systematically about the challenges inherent in traditional transportation to and from school, and their impact on absenteeism and student learning. They also need to look at how new thinking and innovative approaches can offer solutions to this crisis.

An important first step is clearly and consistently acknowledging that transportation to and from school is integral to education and not an ancillary service. For example, in September 2023, the White House released a blog post about chronic absenteeism and outlined some approaches to address it. While the post highlighted some valuable reforms taken by the Biden administration, there was, unfortunately, no mention of school transportation. In January, the White House held an event focused on chronic absenteeism. Again, there was no mention that access to school transportation is a part of the problem and can — and should be — part of the solution. That has to change.

The next step is challenging the notion that a yellow school bus should always be the first option. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, barely half of public school students used a yellow bus in 2019. That percentage has been steadily declining since 1980 and is surely even lower today, given pandemic disruptions to education and the driver shortage. 

Instead, policymakers and school administrators need to invest in innovative solutions. For example, cities that have robust public transportation systems have given students fare cards covering the cost of trips to and from school. When focused on older students who live close to transit stops and can walk there safely, this has proven to be an effective alternative, particularly for students from low-income families. 

All school systems should also consider supplemental transportation options. By more frequently supplementing yellow buses with smaller vehicles — like cars, SUVs and small vans — some districts have made real progress, reducing transit time for students and improving cost and carbon efficiency. Hundreds of districts across the country have partnered with tech platforms that specialize in arranging these supplemental transportation options. Notably, this type of service has been shown to increase attendance, particularly for young people most at risk of missing school.

Finally, school systems and states should invest in emerging technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to make existing routes more efficient and identify the shortage areas where supplemental transportation can help fill gaps. Colorado Springs’ District 11, for example, used AI to optimize its routing, which essentially solved its bus driver shortages by increasing the number of high-utilization bus routes and cutting the number of total routes nearly in half. The district was also able to increase on-time arrivals and reduce its projected transportation budget by 40% over the next 10 years.

A nation committed to education as a priority must utilize all these tools and more to embrace a new era of multimodal school transportation. Unless and until federal and state policymakers acknowledge the very real ways transportation issues undergird chronic absenteeism and invest in proven solutions, the wheels of some buses will keep going ‘round and ‘round while many students are left behind.

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