upper waypoint

Why Doesn't California Have More School Buses?

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

The back of a yellow school bus is visible next to a street sign reading "bus stop."
A school bus is parked outside of Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8, part of the San Francisco Unified School District, in San Francisco on March 2, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Weekday mornings are unquestionably hectic for many of us. We’re up early and out the door, headed towards some kind of commute to work. However, adding the responsibility of getting children through that morning routine and to school on time can feel like the day’s biggest accomplishment.

When Jules Winters first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from the East Coast, she worried that in that morning rush, she’d get stuck behind a school bus stopping every couple of blocks to pick up kids. She knew from experience that it could make her late to work. But, soon, that concern turned to puzzlement because it never happened. Instead, she noticed a lot of traffic jams around schools at drop-off and pick-up times.

“Now, I’m not going anywhere near [a] school because of all the parents dropping off their kids,” she says. “Why aren’t there buses taking students to and from school?” she wondered. “Why is that now the obligation of the family? And how do different families accommodate that? Is that equitable?”

It goes back to Proposition 13

Winters isn’t wrong. California has fewer school buses than in other parts of the country. A survey conducted by the Federal Highway Administration found that nationally, almost 40% of school-aged kids ride a school bus. In California, that number is only 8%.

Sponsored

Like so many questions related to school funding and services, the answer to Winters’ question has roots in the passage of Proposition 13, a constitutional amendment that limited how much a homeowner’s property taxes could increase each year. Property taxes were the primary way school districts funded themselves back then.

“The restriction of those sources of revenue in 1978 caused more or less a budget crisis,” says Sam Speroni, a doctoral researcher at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies and a researcher at San Jose State’s Mineta Transportation Institute. “So in 1982, the state froze its home-to-school transportation budget with only cost of living adjustments, and that stayed in place until 2022.”

A line of kids boards a yellow school bus.
Across the country, about 40% of school-aged kids ride a school bus. In California, that number is closer to 8%. ( Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

In the intervening years, California’s population has grown, including school-aged children, but the transportation budget has largely stayed the same. That has forced districts to shoulder more of the costs associated with providing school buses.

“That leads local districts into really difficult decisions about, ‘do we continue providing buses or do we eliminate in-school-house services that are also super important?’” Speroni says.

Districts are federally mandated to provide buses to certain groups of students, like those who have transportation, as part of their Individualized Education Program (IEP). However, California does not require school districts to offer school transportation to general education students. As the demands on the school budgets have grown, many districts have chosen not to prioritize school bus funding, which is costly.

Buses to serve equity goals

Low-income families and families of color often travel the furthest to get to school and have the least resources at their disposal. In recognition of that, some Bay Area districts fund a small number of buses to help meet their equity goals.

Berkeley Unified School District assigns elementary students to zones and then places them in schools with an eye toward socioeconomic diversity. The district uses census data on family income and parental education to help it do this. If the student lives further than 1 1/2 miles from their assigned school, the district offers school buses to help them get there.

Over 1,600 students ride the bus in Berkeley, about 18% of the school community.

Berkeley’s commitment to school buses stems from a legacy of bussing for integration that goes back to 1968. Berkeley was the first sizable city with a large minority population to voluntarily start a two-way bussing program to both bring white students down from the hills and to take Black students up to the hill schools as a way to racially integrate the population of all its schools.

San Francisco also offers some school buses to general education students. It runs 35 buses for K–8 students each day, with routes that largely start on the southeast side of the city and bring kids to schools further north and west. The district says these routes help provide crucial access to language programs and offer more choices to families living in the southeast. The routes serve 46 schools and about 2,000 kids. Families sign up for the school bus when they enroll their children in elementary school. The routes and applications for spots on the bus are assigned at the educational placement center.

Partnering with public transit agencies

While many school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area do not provide dedicated school buses for general education students, they often partner with public transportation systems to help families get kids to school. In San Francisco, school-aged kids ride for free on Muni. SamTrans, serving schools in San Mateo County, offers free rides to low-income students.

Some school districts and public transportation agencies even work together to align schedules. For example, AC Transit, in the East Bay, offers Supplementary Service to School routes designed to align with school bell schedules and to cover the attendance boundaries of certain schools. AC Transit also discounts fares based on income requirements, as does Clipper.

Despite these efforts, according to the Federal Highway Administration survey, only about 2% of California students take public buses to school. In contrast, 68% get a ride in a private vehicle.

Calls for school transportation reform

Recently, there have been calls to reform California’s school transportation system. A 2014 Legislative Analyst’s Office report highlighted how underfunded the program had become and suggested several ways to reform it. In 2022, Newsom pledged state money to fund 60% of the cost of funding school transportation, the largest increase in years. The governor also allocated $1.5 billion in one-time funds to help districts transition to electric school buses.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner proposed a bill in 2022 that would provide universal access to school transportation for TK–12 public school students in the state. She argued that reliable transportation to school could reduce chronic absenteeism and improve school performance, especially for low-income students whose families more often don’t have cars. An analysis of the Skinner bill found it would cost the state $1.4 billion, which may be why, despite support in the Senate, it didn’t advance.

The high cost of providing school buses, paired with the many demands on a school district’s budget, make changes to school transportation policy a tricky proposition going forward.

Episode Transcript

Olivia Allen-Price: Whenever Bay Curious listener Jules Winters thinks about her childhood growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, she thinks of her school bus driver.

Jules Winters: My bus driver was Ted for like, most of my life. This one time, there was a snowstorm that just hit, like out of nowhere, and it was like full-on blizzard. And I remember, like, we had been at school maybe only into like 9:00, and they were like, we got to get you out of here, like, now. And so they called all the buses. And we got on the bus with Ted, and we got stuck in a huge snowdrift on the way home.

Olivia Allen-Price: Jules doesn’t remember being scared in that moment, even though it was probably really stressful for Ted. She felt safe. She knew Ted would get her home, he always did.

Jules Winters: I have really good memories of taking the bus. Like, I met my best friend on the bus. She had moved into town over the summer and was just starting in a new school, and it’s kind of like I was the first person that she met.

Olivia Allen-Price: So when she moved to California as an adult, Jules quickly noticed there weren’t many school buses moving kids around.

Jules Winters: I think it’s ironic that initially, I was concerned about traffic, with like being stuck behind a bus, because that was what I was used to on the East Coast. Now, it’s like, I’m not going anywhere near that school because of all the parents dropping off their kids.

Olivia Allen-Price: I live a half block from a school, and trust me, some of the worst traffic jams happen around school start and end times. Since Jules has such positive memories of riding the bus as a student, it got her wondering.

Jules Winters: Why aren’t there buses taking students to and from school?

Olivia Allen-Price: And that led to a whole bunch more questions.

Jules Winters: Why is that now the obligation of the family and how do different families accommodate that? Is that equitable?

Olivia Allen-Price: Today on Bay Curious, we’re taking a closer look at how kids get to school, why it matters, and if it’s true that there aren’t as many school buses in California as there are in other places. I’m Olivia Alan Price. Stay with us.

[Sponsor message]

Olivia Allen-Price: Today, we’re digging into why you don’t see as many school buses around the Bay area as you might in other parts of the country. And to help answer some of Jules’ questions, we have Bay curious producer and longtime education reporter Katrina Schwartz. Welcome, Katrina.

Katrina Schwartz: Hi, Olivia. I was actually quite excited that we got an education question.

Olivia Allen-Price: Yeah, let’s get right into it. Is Jules right? Are there actually fewer school buses here?

Katrina Schwartz: Yes, Jules is correct. She’s actually put her finger on a real discrepancy. So there’s this survey that the Federal Highway Administration does across the country. And when you look nationwide, almost 40% of school-age kids ride a school bus. And that number has been fairly consistent across many decades. But here in California, only 8% of kids ride a school bus to school, which is the lowest in the country.

Olivia Allen-Price: Wow. 8%. You know, I wouldn’t have thought it was that low. Although I guess if I think about it, I don’t tend to see school buses very often when I’m out on the roads.

Katrina Schwartz: Right, because they really aren’t that common. In fact, I had a fair amount of trouble finding any kid that rode a school bus until I started asking around in Berkeley, where it is a little bit more common. So, I met Liz Christiano at her house in Berkeley. She actually volunteered to let me come over at this very stressful time in the morning.

Liz Christiano: Good morning. Welcome, Katrina

Katrina Schwartz: Getting ready time in order to meet up with her son James and his friend Eli, as they were having breakfast and getting ready to go to the school bus. They are both fourth graders at John Muir Elementary, and they remember the first time that they rode the school bus.

Eli: It was kind of strange because, like, I didn’t know anybody, but then, like, I got used to it really quickly.

James: It wasn’t really scary. I guess it felt weird.

Katrina Schwartz: And they were not entirely positive about the experience but kind of resigned to it. I would say.

Eli: It was pretty loud. There’s like so many people talking at once. And then the bus driver, like, frequently stops or has to use the radio to tell people to be quiet or to stop using foul language on the bus.

Olivia Allen-Price: OK. That tracks. I remember not loving the bus all the time as a student, but I know that my mom appreciated that it meant she didn’t have to drive me to school.

Katrina Schwartz: Yes, I think buses are really more for parents than they are for kids.

Liz Christiano: My morning would be ridiculously stressful if I had to take him, even though we’re not that far away.

Katrina Schwartz: Liz Christiano says she’s not even sure how she’d manage her morning without the bus.

Liz Christiano: The getting up and going. Having to manage all of the logistics of getting everywhere and everything on time is just… it’s a lot.

Katrina Schwartz: She has another child who’s younger, who goes to a preschool in Oakland. That school starts at the same time as James’ school. So if she was having to take them both to school, it would be this real logistical hurdle to juggle it all. And so she was just very thankful for the bus.

Liz Christiano: Having your kid picked up and taken somewhere and then delivered home the amount of life and cognitive space that you get back, I love it. I really love it. The mornings are so much better because of the bus.

Katrina Schwartz: James and Eli normally walk to the school bus together without their parents. It’s about a two-block walk. But this morning, because I was there, a bunch of kids met up and we all walked to the school bus together.

James: We’re about to have to go to the bus. Do you want to interview Mia or Micah? they’re also on the bus.

Katrina Schwartz in scene: So, Micah, how do you feel about the bus?

Micah: I like that parents still get to work as much as they want. And it’s just fun to ride in the bus with friends.

Katrina Schwartz in scene: What about you, Mia? How do you feel about it?

Mia: I really like it. Because even if you’re late to the bus, all you have to do is run, and he’ll wait for you.

Katrina Schwartz in scene: He waits for you!

Mia: Yeah, and he laughs. (giggles) This is my first year. So I was very nervous on the first day. I wasn’t expecting that my stop would be the first stop on the whole thing and that it would take like 20 minutes to get to school.

Katrina Schwartz in scene: Are you annoyed that it takes so long or is it OK?

Mia: It’s OK because then I get to talk to my friends when they get on the bus.

Katrina Schwartz in scene: So, is this the bus stop?

Eli: It’s a very sad bus stop because it has no sign.

Katrina Schwartz: And, pretty soon the bus pulled up. The kids all kind of gave their moms hugs and then got on.

Mia: What we’re trying to say, is the bus is amazing!

James: No, we are not.

Katrina Schwartz: Off they went.

Olivia Allen-Price: I mean, it sounds like it’s working out really well for them. Why aren’t there more buses around California if it’s helping out this family so much?

Katrina Schwartz: Yeah. So this all goes back to Proposition 13, which is a constitutional amendment that passed in 1978. And it really limits how much property taxes can increase for homeowners, which is a big deal for school districts because, before Prop. 13, property taxes were the main way that school districts funded themselves. Since then, that burden has shifted more to the state because of Prop. 13.

Sam Speroni: The restriction of those sources of revenue in 1978 caused more or less a budget crisis.

Katrina Schwartz: I talked with Sam Speroni, who is a doctoral student at UCLA studying school transportation.

Sam Speroni: So, in 1982, the state froze its home-to-school transportation budget with only cost-of-living adjustments, and that stayed in place until 2022.

Katrina Schwartz: So over the past 40-plus years, California’s population has grown, though. So there’s just this one pot of money that really hasn’t changed that much, and more kids and more need. So, if districts want to offer school buses, they have to kind of shoulder more of the burden to pay for that. And that means tradeoffs. You know, you can’t pay for everything.

Sam Speroni: That leads local districts into really difficult decisions about, do we continue providing busses or do we eliminate in school house services that are also super important?

Katrina Schwartz: Reading support specialist for example, or an extra social worker?

Sam Speroni: And politically, it’s difficult to justify the elimination of teaching staff if school buses can be reduced first.

Olivia Allen-Price: Obviously, you said it’s an expensive prospect for school districts to think about doing this, but Berkeley is making a bigger investment than others to keep buses going. Why?

Katrina Schwartz: So it goes back to the history of bussing.

Archival tape: The method is bussing, in itself one of the most controversial issues before boards of education throughout this country. But Berkeley is out to prove that it works.

Katrina Schwartz: You know, in the 1960s and 70s, school buses were one of the primary ways that districts tried to integrate their schools racially. There was a lot of segregation before that, and school bussing was a way of basically moving kids around, mixing them up, taking them to different neighborhoods.

Archival tape: And with the use of 25 buses, 3,500 elementary children began to commute to and from White and Negro neighborhoods.

Katrina Schwartz: Trish McDermott is the senior communications director for Berkeley Unified, and she told me this history is fundamental to how Berkeley operates today.

Trish McDermott: In 1968, we integrated our elementary schools, and that really made Berkeley the first larger city in the country with a large minority enrollment to voluntarily desegregate schools. And we did that with our buses.

Katrina Schwartz: And Trish says even in progressive Berkeley, bussing for integration wasn’t always popular.

Trish McDermott: Big, crowded school board meetings, a lot of pushback.

Katrina Schwartz: They eventually got it done.

Trish McDermott: It’s change that we’re very proud of, and it really is the legacy of our transportation department as it exists today.

Archival tape: Oxford is typical of a school in Berkeley’s white middle-class neighborhood. Last year, Oxford student body had one Negro member. Today, 40% of the 325 students are black.

Katrina Schwartz: It’s a progressive district, and they care about creating schools that are diverse and integrated. So, what they do is assign elementary school students to a zone, and then they look at the census for income data and parental education data to assign students to different schools. And then they use school buses to help kids and families get to the school that they were assigned to.

Olivia Allen-Price: Berkeley is doing this, but how does that stack up against all the other hundreds of school districts in California?

Katrina Schwartz: Well, it’s important to know that there’s no law in California that requires school districts to provide buses to general education students. So every district kind of looks at its budget and their student population and decides, you know, can we afford to do this or not? Is this where we want to spend our limited resources? You always have to make tradeoffs. So in a rural district, for example, they often prioritize school transportation because the distances are longer. There maybe aren’t any public transportation options for students, and the schools are more spread out. So bussing is sort of essential to getting kids to school.

I will say that every district does need to provide some school busses, because they are federally mandated to transport certain groups of students to school. So if a student has transportation as part of their Individualized Education program, for example, maybe they have a disability or something like that, then they get transportation to school, and that is federally mandated.

One district that actually does provide school buses for general education kids is San Francisco, which might actually surprise some families in San Francisco because a lot of families have to drive their kids to school or walk them to school or find some other way to get there. But there are a few school buses, 35 buses that the district runs. And again, it is also for equity reasons, largely the routes start on the south side of the city where there’s often more kids. It tends to be like lower-income neighborhoods, and the routes take kids to the west side of the city, and that’s to provide access to language programs, other schools, and basically makes sure that they have access to the rest of the city.

Olivia Allen-Price: There must be families who would use bussing if it came to them, and it just doesn’t. What do those people do?

Katrina Schwartz: Well, you know, some kids walk to school if they’re close enough, some kids bike to school. But about two-thirds of California students get a ride to school in a private vehicle. So obviously that’s not great for the environment. And it’s a big ask of families. I mean, plenty of people don’t have cars, so some districts try to help out by partnering with public transportation systems. So in San Francisco, for example, school kids can ride Muni for free. And the district says that every school is served by at least one Muni bus line or train line. In the East Bay. It’s AC transit, and they actually reach out to the school districts around them and try to align their bus schedules to the school. Will start and end times to make it easier for kids to ride.

Katrina Schwartz in scene: I’m here at De Anza High School in Richmond. And it’s interesting because, like, all the AC transit buses are waiting here, like school buses. They’re pulled up off the street in this little pick-up zone. And there’s a bunch of kids who came out of school who are waiting around for the buses to leave.

[Sound of fare machine beeping]

About 20 minutes after school let out…

Katrina Schwartz in scene: So all the kids are, like, crowded around the door waiting to get on the bus.

[Sounds of bus honking and accelerating]

Katrina Schwartz: The bus takes off. And it takes a route through the school boundary zone so that all these kids can get back home. But if there was another patron on the street who wanted to ride, they could easily get on the bus anywhere along the route.

Olivia Allen-Price: I mean, I imagine this, you know, really boils down to sort of a problem on the equity front, right? Because, OK, even if parents are able to take their kids to school because of their schedule, that still is going to mean they’re going to have to have a car that’s operational. That requires a certain amount of money. Be up to date on insurance. Or I mean, the other thing to consider is like, that’s going to limit the shift work that perhaps parents could do if they’re going to have to know that they need to be available to take their kid to school at a certain time. That’s a constraint that, especially if you’re living, you know, on a low-income salary, that’s just one more thing that you’re sort of juggling in an already pretty complicated life.

Katrina Schwartz: Yeah, I think it is an equity issue, although it’s a little bit unclear how big of one it is. I mean, obviously any family that has more flexibility and more mobility is going to have more choices. And all the things that you laid out are true. But there are a lot of other factors that make schools unequal in California. So it’s hard to say how much of a difference a school bus would really make to the whole big picture. One thing that Sam Speroni says, though, is that if California as a state wants to even the playing field for families by offering choices about what schools a family might send their kid to, transportation really needs to be part of that conversation.

Sam Speroni: Ultimately, you don’t have school choice if you don’t have transportation to those choices.

Katrina Schwartz: And then the other problem that Sam Speroni brought up — this is a national problem — there’s a huge school bus driver shortage.

Sam Speroni: With the buses we already have. We’re struggling to staff them.

Katrina Schwartz: The school bus drivers have to have a special commercial driver’s license, which is also what you use for trucking or other types of delivery jobs. And often those jobs pay more. So in this current economy, it’s very hard to retain your school bus drivers. And we’re seeing that even in places that have much more robust bussing, they’re having a lot of trouble staffing their buses.

Olivia Allen-Price: Now, given everything you’ve learned, are there likely to be any changes to how many school buses California schools offer?

Katrina Schwartz: I mean, a number of people have flagged this as a problem. It’s an equity issue, as we already talked about. So, State Sen. Nancy Skinner actually introduced a bill in 2022 that would have provided universal school transportation for California public school students. And she did that because she argued that providing dedicated funds for school transportation would actually improve attendance. It would help with chronic absenteeism, and especially for low income students, it could also improve outcomes at school, too. But this bill was estimated to cost the state $1.4 billion. And so it had some support in the state Senate, but ultimately it didn’t advance.

Olivia Allen-Price: $1.4 billion is a lot of money. But still, you know, as someone who rode a school bus, I do have a little bit of nostalgia for those big yellow buses. And I find it a little sad that, you know, I have a 3-year-old, and he isn’t likely to ride a bus in California and have that special relationship with his bus driver.

Katrina Schwartz: Yeah, I mean, I definitely got the sense from our question-asker, Jules, that she finds it a bit sad. I mean, she really had a positive experience on the bus and felt like it really created community. And not having them around here in the Bay area seems like just another way that the social fabric is fraying a little bit.

Jules Winters: I guess I’ve always imagined that buses are like a library or a firefighter station or a police station like it’s this community service that is part of the inlaid structure of what makes it a community or what makes it a school for that community. So it just boggles my mind that it’s not part of any of these communities here.

Olivia Allen-Price: Well, Katrina Schwartz, thank you so much for bringing the story to us.

Katrina Schwartz: You’re welcome. I’m sorry I couldn’t get more cute kids on buses. Apparently, there’s a lot of liability issues with getting on school buses.

Olivia Allen-Price: The woes of education reporting.

Katrina Schwartz: Yes. It’s hard.

Olivia Allen-Price Big thanks to Jules Winters for asking this week’s question. If you’ve got a question you’d like Bay Curious to take on, head to baycurious.org  and fill out our form at the top of the page. While you’re there, vote in our March voting round. Here are the options under consideration.

Voice 1 Have you noticed all the motels along Lombard Street? I have. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wondered why. Can you find out?

Voice 2 At the San Francisco Opera House, there’s a chandelier high above the orchestra level. How do they change the light bulbs when they burn out?

Voice 3 San Mateo County has an official shared housing program, which helps people find housing in someone else’s home. How well is it working?

Sponsored

Olivia Allen-Price Again, that’s baycurious.org.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
Why California Environmentalists Are Divided Over Plan to Change Power Utility RatesWhy Renaming Oakland's Airport Is a Big DealAllegations of Prosecutorial Bias Spark Review of Death Penalty Convictions in Alameda CountyBay Area Indians Brace for India’s Pivotal 2024 Election: Here’s What to Know‘Sweeps Kill’: Bay Area Homeless Advocates Weigh in on Pivotal US Supreme Court CaseSF Democratic Party’s Support of Unlimited Housing Could Pressure Mayoral CandidatesWhen Rivers Caught Fire: A Brief History of Earth DayCalifornia’s Future Educators Divided on How to Teach ReadingAngela Davis and Black Student Leaders Talk Social Justice at Alameda High School EventB. Hamilton: 'Hey Sunshine'