Maine Schools in Focus: Riding the School Bus—Costs and Conundrums
Editor: Gordon Donaldson
Bus rides are one of the “givens” of public schooling. Without them, many if not most U.S. children would not have access to a free, appropriate education. But transportation is also one of the more intractable challenges facing educators. The financial cost remains stubbornly fixed, seemingly immune to savings. The human and educational costs are less tangible, but few debate the connection between early bus pick-up times, long and sometimes arduous rides, and stress on children (as well as parents).
What is the condition of bussing in Maine? Why do the challenges inherent in our system seem so difficult to address?
Bussing is a by-product of school and district consolidation. In the 16 years between 1932 and 1948, 42 percent of Maine’s elementary schools closed and the percentage of elementary students bussed rose by 38 percent such that 36 percent of all elementary students were bussed (Donaldson 2014, p. 109). During the great consolidation era, the percentages of all Maine students “conveyed at public expense” rose from 27.6 percent in 1948 to 61 percent in 1972, and then to 78.1 percent in 1984.
The fiscal price for these services rose precipitously as well. Maine’s total expenditure for transportation and buses jumped 826 percent from 1950 to 1980, then tripled by the year 2000. Since 2000, expenditures for transportation have remained remarkably constant at about 5.4 percent of all district expenditures (exclusive of state-level funding beyond General Purpose Aid). Currently, about 55 percent of Maine students are bussed to school.
Bussing takes a larger bite of Maine’s education dollar than it does nationally due to our rural population. In 2012-13, Maine districts spent an average of $647 per pupil for bussing while nationwide that figure was $478. That year, transportation accounted for 5.6 percent of district PreK-12 expenditures in Maine; it accounted for 4.3 percent of all PreK-12 expenditures in the nation as a whole (MDOE; NCES). The additional $169 dollars our districts spend for bussing are, obviously, not available for educational services. In order to fund core educational services, we must raise funds over and above this “rural cost” surcharge.
Within Maine, the burden of transportation costs falls unevenly as well. In 2014-15, when the state as a whole spent 5.5 percent of the PreK-12 budget for transportation, 32 districts spent more than 10 percent of their budgets for bussing. These were some of our smallest and most rural communities (a number without their own schools); they included municipal units like Beaver Cove, Cooper, Grand Isle, Pembroke, Waite, and Whitneyville, but also MSAD 10, RSU 44, RSU 64. Among those spending between 8 and 10 percent were not only municipal units, but also a number of consolidated districts (RSUs 19, 24, 37, 42, 50, 55, 57, 70, 72, 79, 85, and 87). Many of these communities cannot avoid high bussing costs. For those districts to provide the same educational resources as more densely populated communities, they need to dig deeper into their wallets. In most of these towns, those wallets are already thinner than in our more populated communities.
In addition to this indirect fiscal impact on learning, the bussing experience itself often carries human and educational costs. These are very difficult to quantify; articles often are limited to small geographic regions or to anecdotal evidence. Howley, Howley, and Shamblen (2001) labeled this “the nearly invisible problem of bus rides.” They examined statewide data in five states and found that the likelihood that rural children would be on the bus longer than 30 minutes, one way, was far greater than that for suburban children. Other studies have found correlations between length of bus ride and lower achievement, reduced physical activity at home, lower participation in extra-curricular activities, and lower aspirations for college (RELMidwest; Jimerson 2007).
As the 2016-17 budget-building season ramps up, school board members, principals, and superintendents might examine more closely the effects of long bus rides on their students. They’d benefit, as well, by opening discussions with their legislators about the equitability of state funding to support transportation, particularly in our most rural communities. Among the questions worth raising are:
- What percentage of students are riding the bus longer than 30 minutes, one way? How early are the earliest pick-up times? Are students with the longest rides and earliest pick-up times finding it more difficult to participate, to remain alert, to achieve, and to be engaged in after-school activities?
- Does the EPS “rurality” factor truly address the higher costs of transportation for rural districts? For those communities with unusually high costs, what is the shortfall after geographic isolation factored in?
- How can more bicycling and walking to school be encouraged? How can it be made safe and rewarding? Can regional transportation systems be used?
- What can be done to make riding the bus more productive and enjoyable? Rural districts in Texas (Huntsville Independent S.D.) and California (Coachella Valley Unified S.D.) have invested in wifi connections on buses, for example. Vanderbilt University’s “Aspirnaut” programs in Tennessee shows promise, as well.
- Can the Maine Department of Education play a stronger role negotiating regional (and more efficient) bus services, helping district leaders reduce the time, energy, and local politics that erode their leadership of the educational enterprise? Similarly, can the Maine Principals Association and the Maine School Management Association together rein in unnecessary travel costs for extra-curricular activities?
Sources: Donaldson, G. (2014). From Schoolhouse to Schooling System: Maine’s Public Education in the 20th Century. Maine Authors Publishing; Jimerson, L. (2007). “Slow Motion: Traveling by School Bus in Consolidated Districts in West Virginia. Rural School and Community Trust; National Center for Educational Statistics (nces.ed.gov); Maine Department of Education (maine.gov/doe); Howley, C., A. Howley, and S. Shamblen. (2001). “Riding the Bus.” In Journal of Research in Rural Education. 17:1. Pp 41-63; RELMidwest. (2013). “Relationship Between Bus Ride, Academic Achievement, and Rural Student Experience on Buses.” at www.relmidwest.org.
Maine Schools in Focus is intended to share information that stimulates thinking, planning, and action to fulfill the mission of Maine’s preK-12 schools. Submissions must present ideas and data relevant to schooling in Maine and pose questions and suggest avenues for policy and action. They must be limited to 750 words.
Contact: Gordon Donaldson at email@example.com.