Legislative Analyst suggests 3 ways to fix school busing formula

Bowing to pleas mainly from rural school districts, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature left alone state subsidies for busing students to school when they created the Local Control Funding Formula last year, while acknowledging the $491 million program needed to be reformed. On Tuesday, the Legislative Analyst’s Office proposed three options to make the system more equitable and rational. Two ­– gradually phasing out the program or reimbursing only districts’ extraordinary busing costs – would save the state money. The third – expanding the program to cover a uniform percentage of the cost in every district – could add $260 million in new costs.

“Adopting any of the three options contained in this report would be a notable improvement,” the LAO report concluded, “and help the Legislature further its goal of building a school funding system that is simple, transparent, and rational.” Kenneth Kapphahn, a fiscal and policy analyst for the LAO, wrote the report.

Home-to-School Transportation, as the state program is known, covers only about a third of the $1.4 billion that school districts paid in busing costs in 2011-12 to transport about 700,000 students – one in eight – in the state. That percentage is lower than the national average of about 50 percent.

Federal law requires school districts to transport disabled students to and from school. The No Child Left Behind law requires districts to provide transportation for students from a low-performing school to a better school if parents request it, which few parents do. But otherwise, unlike many states, California leaves it up to districts to set the rules for bus transportation, and some districts over the years have cut back or eliminated the program. About a quarter of the state’s 950 districts bus less than 10 percent of students, while 100 districts – primarily small rural districts that enroll larger proportions of low-income students – transport more than half of their students, according to the LAO. About 40 districts spend more than $1,000 per student on busing – four times the state average.

Based on data for 809 districts, more than half bus 20 percent or fewer of their students, while about 100 districts, about an eighth, bus 50 percent or more. Source: Legislative Analyst's Office report on school transportation

Based on data for 809 districts, more than half bus 20 percent or fewer of their students, while about 100 districts, about an eighth, bus 50 percent or more. Source: Legislative Analyst’s Office report on school transportation

An antiquated formula for distributing the money has compounded the disparities. Since the early 1980s, the state has frozen funding for districts, except for cost of living adjustments in some years, without regard to differences in enrollment growth over the past three decades. “As a result, funding allocations now vary across similar districts for no apparent reason,” the report noted, with a quarter of districts receiving reimbursements for less than 30 percent of their costs, with another quarter getting more than 60 percent of costs reimbursed.

Brown and the Legislature eliminated nearly all “categorical” programs and folded the funding for them into the Local Control Funding Formula, which redistributes money based on enrollments of low-income students, English learners and foster youth. But facing resistance from rural districts and Los Angeles Unified, which argued that busing students to magnet schools was part of its court-approved desegregation plan, Brown and the Legislature preserved Home-to-School Transportation. However, they also froze the funding level permanently and ended cost of living adjustments.

That approach, however, didn’t address the inequities of the formula, and so the Legislature asked the LAO to recommend a solution.

The three options are:

  • Phase out funding for the program over the next several years and let districts decide how much to spend on busing from money it gets under the Local Control Funding Formula. The state would then have $491 million to spend elsewhere. Rural districts would complain about the new unreimbursed burden, but then, as the LAO points out, high-cost urban and coastal districts aren’t given extra money for the higher salaries they have to pay to hire and retain teachers.
  • Establish a threshold for reimbursement and pay most of the costs above that level, easing the burden of districts facing disproportionate busing expenses. Busing consumes 5 percent or less of total expenses in about two-thirds of districts. About 70 districts, all rural, spend more than 8 percent of their budgets on busing. Covering 75 percent of expenses above that level would cost the state only about $10 million per year, the LAO said. The state would then save $481 million it’s paying now.
  • Create a new formula that reimburses all districts for a portion of their transportation costs. This option would have the advantage of creating a uniform reimbursement rate, while creating incentives for efficiency, since districts would continue to bear the bulk of the cost. Reimbursing 35 percent of districts’ busing expense would add $120 million in funding costs for the state. Covering 50 percent of the expense would add $260 million to the $491 million it’s now paying.


John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfensterSign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

Filed under: Local Control Funding Formula, State Education Policy



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6 Responses to “Legislative Analyst suggests 3 ways to fix school busing formula”

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  1. KSC on Feb 28, 2014 at 9:05 am02/28/2014 9:05 am

    • 000

    Fiddling with the formula is fiddling with the margins.

    Getting kids to and from school is an issue that impacts every resident in California.

    It’s a transportation issue. Every community feels the impact of individual families in cars every morning and every afternoon. Every region grapples with long term transportation planning, yet incredibly, home to school transportation is off the table. Addressing that alone (or first) would have an immense positive ripple effect throughout the state.

    It’s an environmental problem. Carpools, bike to school days put the tiniest dent in the impact of thousands of families making short trips in individual cars twice each day, 180 days every year.

    It’s an economic and social problem. The twin failure to provide transportation and comprehensive after school programs means parents of every school age child have to either figure how to manage on their own or make a decision to designate a parent to work less or not at all in order to transport their kids to and from school and be home at 3:00 every day. Part time or flexible jobs are hard to find — that’s an economic impact on the family. Highly skilled people are staying out of the workforce to transport and care for their kids — that’s a statewide economic impact.

    It’s a scale problem. In suburban and smaller urban areas, public transportation needs scale to be efficient. Routes are cut due to insufficient scale, impacting everyone. If school routes were factored in, it could benefit every rider, provide jobs and reduce traffic.

    A statewide effort to transport kids to and from school may just have enough economic, environmental, social benefits to warrant or offset the cost.

  2. el on Feb 26, 2014 at 5:46 pm02/26/2014 5:46 pm

    • 000

    Public transit is only going to be viable for schoolkids in a few edge cases.

    The LAO suggests that the cost of living for teachers can be swapped out for transportation. In aggregate that’s not a bad proxy, but in each actual case I don’t know that that holds up. Most rural areas will have a town center where kids walk to school and then surrounding communities with long distances, and they’re not necessarily the same district, but they are the same labor market. You can also have situations where most of the kids are local but a handful – who still deserve a free and accessible public education – are bused a significant distance. Many districts in my region have kids that are on the bus for an hour to get to school (sometimes because their local school was closed).

  3. Manuel on Feb 26, 2014 at 2:45 pm02/26/2014 2:45 pm

    • 000

    As I understand it, TIIG money funds magnet schools, which were created to decrease segregation and have become the de facto gifted schools.

    As for the busing, the magnet schools in LAUSD rely on those buses to move students from far away. To ask that they instead take the MTA would be a non-starter since the routes would not be direct.

    Also, MTA does not work as well as in a small city. The distances are too long. Yes, there are heroic tales out there of people taking the bus for hours to take their kids to school, but the system would implode if everyone did the same.

  4. el on Feb 26, 2014 at 2:06 pm02/26/2014 2:06 pm

    • 000

    There is another cost to keep in mind, which is that for schools where kids cannot walk but transportation is either not provided or the district forces the purchase of a bus pass, parents end up driving the kids to school. It’s a cost and burden that ends up making life less good for pretty much everyone, creating

    (a) more traffic, that has to be accommodated both on the school site for parking and driveways and by municipal streets
    (b) increased fuel use and air pollution
    (c) hundreds of dollars in gasoline for the family over a year
    (d) a fair amount of lost productivity for parents.
    (e) automobile traffic is more dangerous to students than bus traffic

    Encouraging efficient use of buses is a public good, not just for parents, but for the local government containing said school and the residents near the school. It’s worth noting that many of the costs I point out are externalized, ie not something that the district would have to absorb.

    Funding extraordinary costs (perhaps not quite the way the LAO defined it) based on the percentage/number of kids riding a bus, possibly with a formula that accounts for the population density of the school district, seems like the best direction to me.

    I’d also like to see the legislature prohibit the practice of charging families/students for a bus pass. It’s ridiculous to me that you can’t charge for a football uniform but that you can charge to ride the bus.

  5. Eric Premack on Feb 26, 2014 at 10:27 am02/26/2014 10:27 am

    • 000

    The huge inequities of the Home-To-School Transportation Program are matched by the other elephant in the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF): The so-called Targeted Instructional Improvement Grants (TIIG, rhymes with “pig”).

    Both of these programs are grossly inequitable, antiquated, and should be swept-in to the LCFF. Ditto for Special Education. Absent doing so, these massive and inequitable programs severely undermine the credibility of LCFF.


    • navigio on Feb 26, 2014 at 4:49 pm02/26/2014 4:49 pm

      • 000

      LCFF will already fund a large portion of special education.

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