Transporting children to school is a critical part of K-12 education. A teacher’s magic cannot work if students fail to make it to school on time. Historically, free school transportation had largely been confined to rural areas. Desegregation, however, led to the spread of free busing to cities. And today, it is not uncommon for parents to complain angrily if bus service is curtailed.4 School districts in Ohio provide a variety of kinds of transportation to students. Districts are mandated by state law to provide transportation to students between kindergarten and eighth grade who live outside a two-mile radius of their nearest public school (Ohio Rev. Code 3327.01). Districts typically bus students, however, that live outside a one-mile radius and occasionally bus even those outside a half-mile radius.5 This "routine transportation" involves taking public school students back and forth from their homes or stops near their homes to school. They also provide "non-routine transportation" of public school students to field trips, sporting events in adjacent communities and after-school programs.
In addition, the Fair Bus Bill passed by the Ohio state legislature in 1966 requires school districts to apply the same policy to non-public school students. Thus, for example, if a school chooses to provide transportation to public high school students outside a one-mile radius, it must also provide transportation to non-public high school students who live outside a one-mile radius to the school they would attend if they were in the public school system. The law states further that non-public school students must be transported a distance of no more than 30 minutes between the public school they would have attended and the private school they are attending.
During the 1997-98 school year, 1,274,725 Ohio children — two out of every three students enrolled in public or private school — were transported each day to school at a cost of $430,686,164.6 As is common in educational finance, most of the transportation bill was paid by local taxpayers. In 1994, school districts received on average 31 percent of their transportation expenses back from the state. Five years later, in 1998, school districts received approximately 35 percent of their transportation operating expenses back from the state. The remaining funds came out of districts’ general revenues. The state also reimbursed districts for some of the costs of replacing or adding new buses. During the 1999-2000 fiscal year, Ohio allocated $28.5 million to school districts for the purchase of buses for public school children and $9.5 million for the purchase of buses for non-public and disabled students. The total amount worked out to roughly 690 buses, or just over one for each district in the state.7
Given the difficult challenge of meeting growing obligations with fewer and fewer resources it is hardly surprising that school district treasurers and transportation directors are taking a hard look at offers from private vendors to provide transportation services.8 While there are a number of rationales cited for turning to contractors, the central advantage touted is cost-efficiency (Hunter 1995; Lyons 1995, 157). A column in the Dayton Daily News which pressed Lebanon School District to turn to a private vendor made the point: "It costs too much to get the kids to school by bus. Hiring a private company is a way to get a better bus service for less money... the school district will get more buses for less money than it would be able to if Lebanon ran the bus service itself" (Celek 1999) . In short, while there are many perceived advantages associated with contracting, including a reduction of administrative work, newer buses and more responsiveness, the primary motivation is cost-efficiency. School boards, superintendents and transportation directors are asking simply: Can our district get more for less with a private contractor?
Ironically, this is the one question that is rarely answered. Careful empirical evaluation has largely been overshadowed by ideological debates over the larger issue of privatization of public services. The few studies of bus contracting that have been conducted typically present survey data from school district managers on the type of, extent of and satisfaction with privatization.9 Other studies are so clearly biased in a particular direction as to weaken the validity of the conclusions. This study seeks to fill in some of the gaps using data reported to the Ohio Department of Education from each of Ohio’s 611 school districts. At the same time, it seeks to avoid the larger debates over whether or not public institutions should consider market alternatives in the provision of public goods.
4In January 2000, parents filed suit against the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District for reducing bus service. To save costs, the district had ceased to offer students that lived within a two-mile radius of their school free bus service. One of the plaintiffs in the case had children who were bused to a private school (Ewinger 2000).
5The state of Ohio reimburses districts part of the cost of transporting students who live outside of a one-mile radius of their school.
6Nationally, Odden and Picus (1992) report that school districts spend approximately 4.4 percent of their budget on transportation.
7Just over one bus per district is a small part of the budget for capital expenses as buses are typically replaced after 10 years of use, and most districts have far more than 10 buses in their fleets.
8Although contracting with a private firm and board-run transportation systems are the most common alternatives, districts also have the option of relying on parents to transport children, using another public utility to transport, or contracting with another school district. Parents transporting children are paid a fixed amount per student, pupils that rely on municipal transportation receive an amount from the district to pay for a bus pass, and districts contracting with other districts work out cost-sharing arrangements between themselves.
9One of the few comprehensive cost comparisons was conducted by Lloyd Davis, Professor of Graduate Studies at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Paul Page, a long-time manager of bus fleets at the state and local level (The American School Board Journal, November 1994, 43-45). Their comparison of two similar school districts in Tennessee revealed that the district that privatized pupil transportation services paid 71 cents more per bus mile driven than the district that provided its own service. They did not consider other variables or how contracts evolved over time.