How We Can Make School Buses Safe for Kids and Affordable for Districts

Aug 2, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Earlier this year, a New Jersey student and teacher were killed in a school bus crash while traveling for a field trip. The incident followed two other high-profile crashes—in Baltimore, Maryland, and Chattanooga, Tennessee—that also resulted in student fatalities. In all three cases, poor oversight of potentially unsafe drivers was a contributing factor and an issue that understandably terrified parents. A new piece of bipartisan legislation would increase accountability for school bus drivers, but while well-intentioned [pullquote position="right"]this legislation misses an opportunity to more broadly improve the school transportation system.[/pullquote] Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and John Faso (R-NY) recently announced the Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act, or “Miranda’s Law,” named for the student who lost her life in the New Jersey crash. The legislation would significantly reduce the time it takes for school districts and private contractors to be notified of driver violations. While current federal regulations require employers to check school bus drivers’ records annually, the new proposal calls for implementing a nationwide employer notification system that would alert employers within 24 hours when a driver’s license status has changed due to infractions like moving violations, accidents or license suspensions. While it is certainly important to hold people accountable when they are entrusted with children’s safety, this proposal only addresses one part of the issue. It increases accountability for drivers, but does nothing to improve the supply of new drivers—already a significant challenge for the school transportation sector. According to recent surveys, both school districts and private contractors struggle to hire enough drivers, with over 90 percent reporting some sort of shortage, and more than a quarter identifying that shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” In response, districts are trying out a number of approaches. Some are relying on maintenance technicians or school support staff to cover routes. Others are consolidating bus routes, reducing bus service and changing school start times. One district even resorted to cancelling two days of classes while it sorted out its transportation issues. This driver shortage isn’t surprising. School bus driving jobs are typically only part-time and pay relatively low wages compared to other jobs requiring a commercial driver’s license (CDL). For example, while school bus drivers earn an average wage of about $15.45 per hour, transit and intercity bus drivers earn an average of $20.81 per hour, and heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers earn an average of $21.39 per hour. However, many districts don’t have much room in their current transportation budgets to simply pay drivers more. Average per-pupil transportation costs have increased by roughly 75 percent since 1980, and annual spending on school transportation totals more than $20 billion. So, while Miranda’s Law seeks to protect students, [pullquote position="left"]it is only a partial solution.[/pullquote] The legislation would help prevent unqualified drivers from getting behind the wheel, but it lacks a plan for filling those additional vacancies or addressing the broader driver shortage that districts already face. If these vacancies remain unaddressed, school districts may continue taking shortcuts that ultimately put kids at risk. In our recent analysis, “ Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” my colleague Jennifer Schiess and I suggested that legislators also consider investing in technological upgrades, shifting to more energy efficient buses and cooperating more effectively with local and regional transportation infrastructure. Doing so would help create a school transportation system that is both safe for students and sustainable for districts. Miranda’s Law is a laudable first step, but we’re overdue to do a lot more to improve student transportation.

Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

Phillip Burgoyne-Allen is a policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit focused on dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved children.

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