‘American Icon': Educators Celebrate The Yellow School Bus’s 50th Birthday

By Robert Rothman — April 19, 1989 5 min read

When a group of educators, state officials, and engineers gathered in New York City 50 years ago this week to discuss standards for school transportation, they had little idea that they were about to create perhaps the most enduring symbol of American education.

But today, one of the group’s key recommendations--the yellow color for school buses--has become, for many, synonymous with schools.

“The yellow school bus is really an American icon,” says P. Michael Timpane, president of Columbia University Teachers College, which is holding a symposium next week to commemorate the conference’s anniversary.

“What it suggests to me,” he adds, “is how important the school bus has been in the development of American education policy.”

Improvements in school transportation, Mr. Timpane notes, have contributed to advances in schooling by easing the consolidation of school districts and schools. At the time of the 1939 conference, he points out, there were 80,000 districts nationwide, compared with 15,500 today, and the one-room schoolhouse was prevalent.

Moreover, busing helped make public education universal by assuring access for children in remote locations, he notes, and it helped promote racial desegregation.

But such concerns were far from the minds of the participants in the 1939 conference, according to Frank W. Cyr, the meeting’s organizer.

“We never thought about that while we were doing it,” says Mr. Cyr, who chaired the 1939 conference. “We didn’t have time.”

“We had our minds intent on writing good standards,” he adds. “Nobody thought we would be celebrating 50 years later.”

Besides, he confesses, the color always “seemed orange” to him.

Mr. Cyr, at the time a professor of rural education at Teachers College, convened the meeting after a study of rural schools convinced him that the lack of uniformity in transportation standards was posing a serious problem for districts.

Panoply of Standards

“When I traveled in different parts of the country,” he recalls, “school officials kept talking about a problem that was bothering them. States kept changing the transportation standards, and it was expensive and an administrative problem to keep up with them.”

“States were in more trouble than districts,” he says. “They didn’t have anyone who knew about buses.”

Each state maintained its own set of standards for school transportation. While children in New York City traveled to school in buses, they went to school in wheat wagons in Kansas and in motorized covered wagons in Wyoming.

The panoply of state standards wreaked havoc with the fledgling school-bus industry as well, Mr. Cyr notes.

“You could watch an assembly line,” he explains, “and one bus would come through for one state that said the front door must be 24 inches wide, and the next bus right behind it would be for a state that said a door must be 30 inches wide.”

‘A Common Problem’

To bring some order to the system, Mr. Cyr decided to convene a meeting to develop nationwide standards for school transportation. He secured from the Rockefeller Foundation a grant of $5,000--a sum large enough in those Depression-era days, he recalls, to allow educators the rare privilege of treating corporate executives to lunch. The grant brought officials from transportation companies and the 48 state departments of education to New York City for a week-long meeting.

But as a voluntary association with no enforcement power, the project faced numerous obstacles.

“The dean of engineering at Columbia laughed at me,” Mr. Cyr says. “He had tried to standardize the bulbs for turning lights on automobiles, and he couldn’t get anywhere.”

His conferees were able to reach agreement on a set of standards, Mr. Cyr suggests, because all of them recognized they had common goals.

“It was all done cooperatively,” he says. “Nobody got anything out of it except solving a common problem.”

Choosing the Color

Another factor working in the group’s favor was a common set of criteria for setting standards. They agreed, he notes, that the standards should above all enhance safety.

“That’s how we picked the color,” he recalls. “It wasn’t because we thought it was beautiful.”

At the time of the meeting, school districts tended to choose bright colors for buses to ensure that they were easily seen, he says. But the colors ranged across the spectrum.

The Catskill Mountain town of Stamford, N.Y., where he now lives, used purple buses, Mr. Cyr recalls, while those in five states, in an effort to “make kids patriotic,” painted their buses red, white, and blue.

“That was just camouflage,” he adds, laughing. “I don’t think it made kids patriotic, either.”

The conference participants agreed that the color should be light enough to be seen through morning fog and at dusk. After starting with about 50 choices, ranging from red to lemon-yellow, the group quickly agreed on three shades of the color that has come to be known as “National School Bus Yellow.”

But in contrast to many education commissions, whose concluel10lsions are ignored soon after they are released, the transportation committee’s recommendations were quickly adopted by all states.

‘Them Days Are Gone Forever’

“One state, Utah,” Mr. Cyr recounts, “adopted the standards before they got the edited report. I didn’t expect that at all.”

The panel succeeded, he thinks, because those responsible for implementing changes were also those responsible for setting policy.

“A great many people had a hand in it,” he says. “They were going to work harder at it than if somebody handed them something and said, ‘You’ve got to do it.”’

The policies also succeeded because they made sense to practitioners, adds Paul E. Glaske, president of the Blue Bird Bus Company of Fort Valley, Ga., the nation’s largest school-bus manufacturer.

“That conference brought all manufacturers to a common design,” he says. “Without that structure, there never would have been a viable school-bus industry.”

It is unlikely such a commission could be so successful today, adds Mr. Timpane.

“Looking at it from 1989, it seems amazing that one group could make definitive policy about any area of education,” he says. “In those days, it could, and was, done. But it could never happen again. Them days are gone forever.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘American Icon': Educators Celebrate The Yellow School Bus’s 50th Birthday