Yellow school buses are under crisis — and experts fear it could lead schools to segregate

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A school bus is pictured after it crashed into a house at the Windermere Development in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.
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REUTERS/Mark Makela

There’s a crisis afflicting public schools, and it affects students even before they hear the first bell.

Around the country, a combination of high costs, complicated safety laws, and driver shortages have made it difficult for public schools to keep their yellow bus fleets running smoothly.

Experts say the the trend could lead to greater rates of socioeconomic segregation if enough families decide driving their kids themselves or relying on private ride-sharing increases their child’s educational opportunities.

“Transportation is an enabler of choice,” Kristin Blagg, a research associate at the Urban Institute think tank, told Business Insider. “Transportation opens up options that previously might not have been available because you can now get to them in a meaningful timeframe.”

Blagg is the coauthor of a recent report that found access to transportation played a significant role in how families exercised school choice – something not all districts allow but which could become more prominent under the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who has pushed hard for school choice.

A third of low-income parents in Denver, Colorado and Washington, D.C. said they’d send their child to a better school further away if the transportation were available.

In some cities, private ride-sharing services have already started cropping up. In addition to Uber and Lyft shuttling kids to and from school for at least the past couple years, startups are opening smaller regional services tailored to kids. There’s Zum in San Francisco, HopSkipDrive in Los Angeles, and Zemcar in Boston.

A few others have shut down soon after launching, however. Most shutdowns have been due to a lack of funding, possibly indicating the market is still uneasy about ride-sharing for kids.

Jennifer Scheiss, principal of the education consultancy Bellwether Education Partners, has found through her organization’s research that public schools face a raft of challenges with their aging and expensive buses.

For instance, most states dictate that public schools can’t transport kids in anything that doesn’t meet the designation of a school bus. That creates a safer experience on the one hand, but it also creates situations where a 48-person school bus caters to just one child because he or she lives across town.

“Those kinds of regulatory frameworks drive a lot of inefficiency,” Schiess told Business Insider. “That in turn drives long bus rides, which a lot of families may be dissatisfied with and which drives them to services where there are personal passenger vehicles.”

Multiplied across the entire US, transportation gradually turns into a worrisome arbiter for school choice, Scheiss said. The kids whose parents who can afford, both in time and money, to send their kids in an Uber-like vehicle stand to gain a lot more from having a menu of options than the ones reliant on the bus.

“In addition, the conversation around national education policy has really focused on increasing school choice,” Scheiss said. Secretary DeVos is a vocal advocate for giving parents the freedom to pick their child’s school – in the same way they’d pick between cell phone carriers. Scheiss believes that approach will only make life harder for public schools in need.

“At some point, someone’s going to really have to deal with [the transportation issue],” she said.

Given all the factors involved, Scheiss isn’t optimistic that districts can readjust the whole of their operations to make yellow buses the more appealing option. Ideally, districts could rehabilitate the schools enough so that parents feel it’s the best option. But as charter and private schools gain more legitimacy, competition is only getting stiffer.

“The overall picture is fairly grim,” she said. “School systems are doing the best they can, but the challenges are very real.”