Panel Paper: Empirical Evidence on School Buses as a Transportation Strategy in a Choice-Based System

Friday, November 9, 2018
Wilson C - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jane Lincove, University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Jon Valant, Brookings Institution

In New Orleans’ choice-based school system, all families must choose a school, and all schools, the majority of which are charter schools, are available to students citywide. Despite enrollment policies that emphasize access, the transportation required to go to and from schools is still a practical obstacle to choice, and neighborhood inequality can still translate to unequal access to school quality. In response, New Orleans’ charter schools are required to provide “adequate and free” transportation via contracted yellow school bus service to students across the city. This an expensive and unique policy (Buerger & Harris, 2017) that reflects the city’s commitment to making schools widely accessible. Since most charter schools in the US are not required to provide transportation, we use the New Orleans case to examine the benefits of this policy in terms of expanding accessible options, as well as the more hidden costs of students’ time spent commuting to school.

Our data include exact school bus route information for dozens of schools across the city, including geocoded locations of bus stops and scheduled pick-up and drop-off times. This enables us to compare the time that students spend on school buses to the time they would spend traveling to school from the same starting point by public transit or car. For many low-income students, car transportation is not an option, but school buses often take circuitous and lengthy routes to school raising concerns that young children spend too much of their day in transit. We extend our work’s focus and impact by considering related questions, such as how transportation offerings affect students from different neighborhoods, how geography determines access to better school quality, and whether commute times could be improved if school start times differed.

This study builds on earlier work on transportation in choice-based education systems (Urban Institute Student Transportation Working Group, 2018) by focusing not only on how long it takes students to get to the schools they attend, but on how long it would take them to get to other, more distant schools they might prefer. Knowing which schools are realistically available to these families by public transit, how their choice set changes when school buses are provided, and how children experience the trip to school informs both theoretical discussions about school choice markets and practical discussions about school transportation policy. Finally, we offer a methodological contribution for school transportation research by measuring the accuracy of direct transit routes as an estimate of more indirect yellow bus routes, which more accurately reflect the time students spend in transit.