Budget & Finance

Why Some K-12 Students Have to Pay for a Bus Ride to School

By Mark Lieberman & Caitlynn Peetz — April 25, 2024 7 min read
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Starting this fall, every student in the Sidney school district who wants to ride a bus will need a pass in hand to board. Students who live four miles or more from their school building will get a free pass. The rest will have to pay.

The announcement has divided community members in the town of 6,500 people in western Nebraska. Some have taken to social media to question why what they consider to be an essential service wasn’t prioritized in the new budget. Others have noted that student-athletes won’t be charged to be transported to competitions and events.

Some who empathize with the district have pointed out that state law does not require that districts provide transportation to students who live within four miles of their schools and doing so in past years has been a courtesy.

The district is getting fewer dollars from the state this year than in previous years. Federal COVID relief funds are running out. And the district has missed out on more than $300,000 in local tax collections because of tax levies that went unpaid, according to media reports.

The Sidney schools aren’t alone. Across the country, school district leaders in states that don’t require free transportation for all students are perennially forced to grapple with the benefits and trade-offs of offering universal bus service.

America annually spends more than $28 billion to transport slightly more than half of public school children to and from the classroom, according to federal data. That’s between 8 and 10 percent of the overall cost of K-12 education nationwide.

Providing bus rides to students who live near a school building could mean hiring more drivers or purchasing more vehicles. To cover those expenses, some districts charge students who live a short distance from school buildings to use district-provided transportation.

State laws generally dictate when school districts must provide transportation to students. Those laws typically focus on when a student lives a set distance away from their assigned school—1 to 3 miles minimum, according to researchers.

Most school districts offer what is called “courtesy busing” for students who live closer than the state-required minimum distance, but in areas without adequate sidewalks or lighting.

How districts fund transportation

Some states contribute funds directly to schools’ transportation costs, while others leave districts to pay for them on their own, with general aid from state or local sources. State formulas and annual appropriations for reimbursing districts for the cost of bus services vary widely.

In Missouri, for instance, the state is legally obligated to cover 75 percent of districts’ transportation costs, but the state has only met that requirement a handful of times in the last three decades. The state of Georgia’s contribution to school districts’ transportation costs went from 50 percent at the turn of the century to less than 20 percent in recent years.

Colorado is among the states that don’t require districts to provide student transportation to and from school, regardless of how far away they live.

Douglas County, Colo., schools charge a transportation fee of $1 per ride, billed quarterly, according to the district’s website. Fees are waived for students who require specialized transportation services or who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The Dubuque school district in Iowa offers students less than two miles from their school building who aren’t eligible for free bus transportation to apply for a “pay ride” option on an existing bus route. Students who secure a spot must pay $155 a year to ride to school or home, or $310 to ride both ways.

In Illinois, school transportation requirements differ depending on the location and shape of the district.

Township high school districts, which typically consist only of a handful of schools for students in grades 9 through 12, aren’t required to transport any students for free.

The Glenbrook high school district has imposed a fee on students who want bus service since the 1950s, when voters rejected proposed tax increases to cover the cost of bus service, said RJ Gravel, deputy superintendent of the 5,200-student district northwest of Chicago.

To determine the fee for the school year, district leaders divide the total cost of bus service by the number of students they expect to take advantage of it—typically around 1,000. Last year, that amounted to roughly $1,200 per student.

Students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals ride on the district’s dime. Out of the 1,000 students who got a pass last year, the district covered the full cost for roughly half.

Just because students have an annual pass doesn’t mean they’re riding the bus every day. Some families purchase a pass so their students can ride the bus only on certain days of the week. Others secure a fully subsidized pass from the district because they’re entitled to it, even if they don’t plan to use it.

The prospect of eliminating the fee hasn’t come up in the nine years Gravel has been with the district. Gravel said the district’s flexible offerings for students with financial challenges curb the concern about imposing fees on what’s supposed to be a free public education.

“Either all property taxpayers and all families in the community pay for the bus services, or only those who use it pay for it,” Gravel said.

Collecting debts is ‘not the business we’re in’

Charging students to ride the school bus isn’t universally embraced.

Indiana and Michigan prohibit districts from charging for school transportation altogether.

And charging bus fees doesn’t always save districts money or solve logistical problems.

The Matawan-Aberdeen regional school district in New Jersey announced in March that it would end its subscription busing program, which cost $1,025 for each student who lived close to their school and did not qualify for free transportation. The district’s superintendent, Nelyda Perez, said in a letter to families announcing the change that, “despite our best efforts to promote and sustain the program, we have encountered several challenges that have made it unsustainable for future school years.”

The Austin district in rural, southeastern Minnesota is required by state law to provide free transportation to students living more than two miles from their school building. The 143-square-mile district extends that offering to students more than one mile away from their school building, said Andrew Adams, who served as the district’s executive director of finance and operations from 2021 to 2023.

Charging students who lived close to their school buildings was an option on the table. But it didn’t feel right for a district where more than 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, said Adams, who now serves as executive director of business services for the Eden Prairie district west of Minneapolis.

“When you put on your equity hat, we’re not going to charge fees to students and become debt collectors of our families,” Adams said. “That is not the business we’re in.”

Bus fees could cause equity concerns

Reducing school bus service or charging for it can present problems for students and families, particularly for families who are already economically disadvantaged, said Sarah Lenhoff, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University in Michigan.

“The students most likely to need school bus transportation are the students who are most economically vulnerable and the least likely to be able to pay for this service,” said Lenhoff, who has studied school transportation issues. “Many children also have a gap between their transportation needs and the resources available to them either in their family or through the school system.”

As more districts confront budget gaps as federal COVID relief funds wind down, Lenhoff said it’s possible some will turn to their transportation departments for cost savings, and more will explore adding school bus service fees.

Before they do, Lenhoff said, districts should conduct an audit of existing bus routes to determine if any could be consolidated or if bus stops could be moved to boost efficiency before “pushing costs onto families who are likely already struggling.”

Districts also need to reflect on how to create policies that don’t disproportionately hurt low-income families, she said. Without access to reliable transportation, students may end up missing more classes and falling behind academically, Lenhoff said.

“If transportation is a prerequisite to showing up to school and receiving a good public education,” Lenhoff said, “we need to make sure we’re doing all we can to make it accessible for students.”

That same consideration is top of mind for Adams in his current district, which invests an extra $100,000 each year to provide transportation to students who aren’t entitled to it under state law. That means transportation for 10,000 students is roughly equivalent to the salary and benefits for one teacher.

To Adams, that tradeoff is worthwhile.

“It should be a free education,” Adams said. “That’s really a mantra we try to live.”

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.

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