More than half of all students in the US use public transportation to get to school each day. And it’s not always the traditional yellow bus either.
The cost of school transportation is on the rise, whether it’s a bus or not.
Over the past 50 years, school transportation costs have more than doubled after adjusting for inflation. More recently, the average cost per student for transportation rose 27% from 2008 to 2018.
Transportation costs added up to 3.5% of all K-12 expenditures in the 2017-2018 school year. The COVID-19 pandemic likely impacted these costs, but that data is not yet available.
Of the 50 million students ages 5 to 17 who traveled to school, 54.2% took a private vehicle, 33.2% took a school bus, and 10.4% walked, according to at 2017 National Household Travel survey — the most recent one available
For children who live one to two miles away from school, more than half take a private vehicle, one-third take the school bus. Fewer than 10% walk.
According to the Department of Transportation, 20 million children ages 5-14 lived too far away to walk or bike to school. Of these children, 50% took the school bus and 45% rode in a private vehicle.
Eighty percent of low-income families own at least one vehicle, but 60% percent of kids from low-income, vehicle-owning households took the school bus. In contrast, 99% of non-low-income households own at least one vehicle, and more than half take a private vehicle to school.
Some states and districts provide public transportation beyond the typical yellow school bus. The New York Department of Education supplies students with MetroCards, allowing them to ride the city’s subways and buses to school. In Washington, DC, the local government pays for Metro transportation to school and school-related activities for students living within the district.
For the last 20 years, a little more than half of all students nationwide rode public transportation to school. This ridership peaked in 1982 when 60% of all students used publicly funded transportation.
State and local governments spent an average of $554 per student on public transportation in 2018 — a 27% increase from 2008. But communities in each state can be vastly different and that can affect how much it costs to get kids to school.
Some states, including Washington, allocate transportation money to school districts based on variables such as the number of students transported, miles driven, geographic disparities, costs of gas, and availability of bus drivers. Other states, such as Arizona, set a flat cost for each student transported or miles driven and allocate funds based on these numbers. Some states, such as Indiana, send districts a lump sum to spend on transportation. Other states don’t assist school districts with per pupil transportation costs.
While there is no government data available that tracks specific variables that impact transportation costs, rising gas prices, labor shortages and state and federal budget cuts to education all factor into how much it costs to transport kids to school.
States with a higher percentage of students living in cities tend to spend more on transportation per student than states with a higher percentage of rural students. About 40% of all K-12 public schools students live in suburban communities, 19% live in rural communities and 30% live in cities.
Transportation costs may be higher in communities that have more students per school district and have more low-income students who need public transportation to get to school.
Washington, DC spent $1,517 on transportation per student — the highest amount nationwide. New York and Massachusetts followed, spending over $1,000 per student. More than half of New York’s K-12 students live in suburban neighborhoods, 46% live in cities and less than 12% live in rural communities, according to the Education Department.
Utah spent $242 per pupil student transportation in 2018, the least of any state. Sixty-two percent of Utah's K-12 students live in suburban communities, 16% live in cities and 11% live in rural communities. Oklahoma spent the second-least: $274 per student. Thirty-one percent of all K-12 public school students in Oklahoma live in rural communities. The other 60% are equally split between cities, suburbs, and towns.
For more information on primary and secondary public-school spending, see these K-12 education metrics.
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