The bus stops here: Time to fund transportation for all California students

Credit: Motiv Power Systems

A new all-electric school bus picks up students in Kings Canyon Unified School District.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May budget revision and state’s projected $68 billion surplus present a historic opportunity to tackle disparities in education while helping children and youth recover academically and emotionally from the Covid-19 pandemic. We should start by ensuring all California students have transportation to get to the classroom safely, on time and ready to learn.

California currently ranks last in the nation in the number of students bused per capita — with only 1 in 10 students taking a bus to school — due to severe, persistent underfunding of transportation programs.

Home-to-school transportation benefits both students and our local communities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely if they take a bus instead of traveling by car.  When widely used, school buses can free parents from an additional stop on the morning commute, reducing traffic and preventing more than 20 million tons of carbon and pollution from being released into our neighborhoods each year.

School districts would readily expand transportation programs with funding that fully covers program costs. Widespread school busing would increase attendance, making it easier for districts to support students’ academic success and mental health, and fully covering transportation costs would free up more funding for programs such as crucial mental health supports.

More than ever, getting students to class every day, on time, is critical to helping students make up the moments lost during the previous two years of stress, isolation and learning disruption.

However, since the early 1980s, state funding for home-to-school transportation has declined, becoming an ongoing hurdle for districts across the state, and many have been forced to give up due to funding deficiencies. By failing to fully reimburse transportation costs and provide schools with a cost-of-living allowance, the state has steadily forced local educational agencies to eliminate or divert funds from other essential student programs to offer transportation.

Today, California school districts and county offices of education spend roughly $1.8 billion annually on home-to-school transportation, and most limit busing only to those students for whom it’s required under federal law. And even for these students, existing state funding is hardly sufficient to pay for a busing program. On average, California reimburses schools for less than 30% of home-to-school transportation costs, with dozens of districts receiving less than 10 cents on the dollar.

The best solution for fully funding home-to-school transportation is embodied in Assembly Bill 2933, which would provide school districts with the funding and flexibility to best serve their students without taking away from other programs also in desperate need of funding.

The proposal addresses the reimbursement canyon by compensating schools for 100% of reimbursable busing costs, including training, hiring and retaining bus drivers and maintenance staff, buses, storage and other infrastructure.

This is key to ensuring schools with higher local and regional costs are adequately funded while providing an ongoing cost-of-living allowance for enrollment shifts, the addition of grades like transitional kindergarten and programmatic changes that require new routes and more buses, including later school start times and expanded before- and after-school programs. This will also help make a dent in the bus driver shortage by providing adequate funding to pay competitive, livable wages in parts of the state with higher costs of living.

Importantly, to ensure schools continue to best serve the needs of students, parents and the community, AB 2933 provides local flexibility without imposing an extreme burden on LEAs through future funding uncertainties.

Amid inflation, rising operating costs and declining enrollment, schools, especially those in smaller, rural districts, are financially strained. Without guaranteed full funding every year, unfunded or underfunded mandates offer the false promise of solving problems when, in actuality, they pull money from other critical purposes, including vital mental health services and programs to address lost learning opportunities.

In the wake of the pandemic, we should seize every opportunity to recover academic deficits and safeguard students’ mental health. AB 2933 builds the foundation for providing home-to-school transportation to all California students. And the surplus can help kickstart funding without depriving students of other programs and services critical to repairing the last two years of stress, isolation, delayed socio-emotional development and learning disruption.


Christopher Schiermeyer is the superintendent and Mark Becker is the board president of San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District located between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the California coast.

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