IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Why Doesn't Everyone Get to Ride the Bus? Reflections on Studying (In)Equity in School Busing

In celebration of IES’s 20th anniversary, we are highlighting NCER’s investments in field-initiated research on equity in education. In this guest blog interview, researchers Amy Ellen Schwartz and Sarah Cordes share the equity-related implications of their IES-funded research on school busing. The research team conducted four related studies as part of their IES grant. First, researchers examined the individual and school factors that may explain why some students ride the bus and others do not. Next, they explored the relationship between bus use and school choice, examining whether students who use the bus to attend a choice school attend a higher quality school than their zoned school. The final two studies explored the link between taking the bus and academic outcomes.

Photo of Amy Ellen SchwartzWhat motivated your research on school busing?

Both of us are very interested in how factors outside the classroom matter for students. The school bus is a critical school service; however, at the start of our research, we knew very little about ridership, commutes, or the relationships between school bus ridership and student outcomes. Given what we know about inequities in other school services and the geography of schooling, it seemed natural for us to explore whether sociodemographic disparities exist in access to and provision of school bus service. Although NYC, like many other urban districts, also provides passes for use on public transit, we chose to focus specifically on the school bus because districts have significantly more discretion to set policies around the school bus.

 

Photo of Sarah CordesWhat were your findings about the relationship(s) between school busing and student outcomes?

Despite the popular images of the iconic yellow school bus as a fundamental part of American public education, there is wide variation in the availability and cost of school bus service across schools, districts, and states. As part of our IES-funded research, we examined the relationship between bus access/characteristics of the bus ride in New York City (NYC) and various outcomes including the likelihood that students attend a choice school, the quality of school attended, attendance, and test scores. Our research revealed four key findings:

  1. Among NYC students who attend choice schools, those who use transportation, especially the school bus, are more likely to attend a school that is significantly better than their zoned school.
  2. Transportation plays a particularly important role for Black and Hispanic students in NYC. Black and Hispanic students who use the bus to attend a choice school are 30-40 percentage points more likely to attend a significantly better school than Black or Hispanic students who attend a choice school but do not use transportation.
  3. Access to the school bus in NYC is associated with higher attendance—bus riders are absent approximately one day less than non-riders and are about four percentage points less likely to be chronically absent. However, most of this gap is explained by differences in the schools that bus riders attend, as within-school disparities in attendance are small.
  4. Although long bus rides (over 45 minutes) are relatively uncommon in NYC, students with long bus rides are disproportionately Black and more likely to attend charter or district choice schools. Further, long bus rides have negative effects on attendance and chronic absenteeism of district choice students and may have small negative effects on test scores among charter school students.

What does equity (or lack thereof) look like in the NYC school bus system?

This is a complicated question that is largely context specific. For example, equity in school bus systems in a choice-rich district like NYC looks different than equity in a district where most students attend their zoned schools. In NYC, the main determinant of school bus eligibility is how far a student lives from school based on their grade level. For example, students in K-2 are eligible for free transportation (MetroCard or school bus) if they attend a school that is more than half a mile from home. That said, “eligibility” for school bus transportation does not mean that students will be assigned to a school bus. This creates the potential for inequities.

Among students who attend the same school, we find no strong evidence of racial/ethnic disparities in bus access. This is not the case when we compare students who attend different schools. We found that while Black students are significantly more likely than any other racial/ethnic group to be eligible for the bus, eligible Black students are also less likely than any other group to be assigned to a bus. Specifically, among students who live far enough from school to be eligible for the bus, Black students are 4.3 percentage points less likely than White students and 4.8 percentage points less likely than Asian students to be assigned bus service. Hispanic students are least likely to be eligible for the bus based on how far they live from school. However, Hispanic students who are eligible for bus service are also less likely to receive it than White or Asian students.  

We identified two possible explanations for these disparities—routing restrictions and whether a school offers the bus. Bus routes in NYC cannot exceed 5 miles and cannot cross certain administrative boundaries. For example, a student cannot take a school bus from one borough to another. Due to these restrictions, there are some students who are eligible for the bus but cannot be placed on a route that follows these restrictions, so they receive a MetroCard instead. The second and main explanation for these disparities is that Black and Hispanic students are significantly less likely to attend a school that provides bus service, as the decision of whether to provide bus service is at the discretion of individual principals.

What potential policy implications does your research have?

Based on our findings, there are three important policy implications to consider. First, districts should consider mandating school bus service in all schools. Second, in the absence of universal bus service, districts should increase transparency about school-level bus provision so that families can factor this into their decisions about where to send their children to school. Finally, districts should consider the consequences of policies around school bus provision, such as route restrictions.


Amy Ellen Schwartz is the dean of the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, University of Delaware. Her research spans a broad range of topics in education policy and urban economics, focusing on the nexus of schools, neighborhoods and public services and the causes and consequences of children’s academic, social and health outcomes. Dr. Schwartz is currently a co-PI and director of transportation research for the IES-funded National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice.

Sarah A. Cordes is an associate professor of policy, organizational and leadership studies within Temple University’s College of Education and Human Development and former IES Predoctoral Fellow. Her research focuses on the ways in which the urban context, including neighborhoods, housing, and charter schools, affect student outcomes.

This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov) and Virtual Student Federal Service Intern Audrey Im. It is part of a larger series on DEIA in Education Research.