D.C. Must Meet Students’ Transportation Needs to Ensure Educational Equity
February 23, 2023 by Sierra Campbell
Federal law requires schools to provide necessary transportation to students with disabilities. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees every child with a disability has access to free appropriate public education designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. Under IDEA, once a student has been evaluated and found eligible, schools must provide the special education and related services deemed appropriate and necessary by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Depending on a student’s needs, this could include transportation to and from school.
Despite this federal mandate, education agencies are failing to meet the transportation needs of students with disabilities in DC and elsewhere. DC’s Office of State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) transports more than 3,400 students with disabilities to school—more than half of whom live in Wards 7 and 8 in DC’s lowest-income neighborhoods. Due in part to the pandemic and a national driver shortage, many of these students are experiencing bus no-shows, unpredictable delays, and hours-long commutes.
These transportation failures are especially harmful for students and families with low incomes. When buses are delayed or don’t show, families must scramble to get their children to school, often causing them to be late or miss work or forcing them to keep their children home from school because they have no other choice. For example, due to a school’s error leaving her son without an assigned bus, DC parent Joann McCray has had to borrow money to cover the $80/day costs of Ubers. After contacting a number of agencies, McCray was told she would not receive any reimbursement and her son would be left without transportation for at least 10 more days. DC parent Steve Longenecker recounted, “When the bus simply wasn’t coming, we would sometimes just keep her home” as getting their daughter to school can take nearly two hours. Similarly, DC parent Valencia Roye shared that she had to use money she was saving for her daughter’s birthday to pay for a Lyft ride to get her daughter to school, and when the bus continued to fail to show up, she had to keep her daughter home.
Studies have shown that the more frequently students miss school, the more their academic performance worsens. Even before the pandemic, students with IEPs and students from families with lower incomes were already more likely to miss school than their peers without IEPs or from higher-income families. Transportation failures will further widen the opportunity gaps between students from families with low incomes and those from families with higher incomes.
Even if students make it to school, bus delays and long commutes can further harm their access to education and well-being. Long bus commutes are associated with decreased attendance, increased chronic absenteeism, and an increased likelihood of changing schools. In addition, tardiness is associated with worse academic and social-emotional outcomes for the students who are frequently tardy and their classmates.
Reliable transportation is critical to students’ stability, learning, and connections to teachers and peers—and OSSE’s transportation failures exacerbate economic inequities.
Reimbursements are an inadequate solution, especially for families with low incomes. In response to driver shortages, OSSE—like school districts in other cities—have offered reimbursements to encourage families to arrange their own transportation. However, DC families must submit a certification and W-9 to receive reimbursement and payments take up to 60 days. This is a far-cry from promoting educational equity for students with disabilities. Many families cannot rely on typical ride-shares or public transportation due to their children’s disabilities. What’s more, while families with higher incomes may be able to afford to pay for costly transportation and wait weeks for reimbursement payments, many families cannot afford to front these costs—and at least some school districts have been extremely delayed in paying the promised reimbursements. This leaves families with lower incomes little choice but to rely on the inadequate bus services, creating further social and academic disparities for students from families with lower incomes.
To promote educational equity and meeting the needs of students with disabilities, OSSE can:
- Invest in recruitment and retention of transportation staff. To retain drivers, other jurisdictions have increased pay rates and offered monthly retention bonuses to bus vendors. To recruit additional staff, other jurisdictions have increased starting pay, offered signing bonuses, and paid for Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) training and licensing, which can be a significant financial barrier for potential applicants.
- Prioritize the use of smaller vehicles. Federal regulation requires any driver of a bus designed to transport 16 or more persons to obtain a CDL in the applicable class with a passenger endorsement. Prioritizing the use of smaller buses or vans that do not require CDLs could enable the hiring of additional drivers that do not yet have CDLs.
- Provide families with stipends. To promote self-transportation, OSSE could establish an optional stipend program that provides families funding proactively rather than retroactively—so that families are not forced to front the money for costly rides. OSSE could also ensure their reimbursement program has clearer procedures, is easier to opt into, and adheres to a strict and frequent payment schedule.
- Partner with ride-share services. Some districts have successfully partnered with ride-share providers that are specifically tailored to transport children, like HopSkipDrive, or with local taxi companies.
- Improve information-sharing. To ensure clarity and reduce burdens on families, OSSE should offer a detailed family guide compiling its transportation policies and procedures as well as resources and contact information in one location. OSSE could also offer a smartphone app to allow families to receive notifications when vehicles are arriving and when there are potential delays.
OSSE must take action to meet this federal mandate and ensure children’s access to education regardless of disability or income.
 20 U.S.C.A § 1400.
 34 C.F.R. § 300.34 (defining “Related Services”).
 DC Off. State Sch. Superintendent of Educ. (OSSE), Responses to Fiscal Year 2021 Performance Oversight Questions 286 (2022), https://dccouncil.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/osseresponses.pdf#page285.
 See Mariel Varbone, Bus Delays, Cancellations Impacting DC’s Most Vulnerable Students, DC News Now (Jan. 24, 2023), https://www.dcnewsnow.com/news/local-news/washington-dc/bus-delays-cancellations-impacting-dcs-most-vulnerable-students/; Martin Austermuhle, Students with Disabilities Face Barrage of School Bus Delays in D.C., DCist (Jan 20, 2023), https://dcist.com/story/23/01/20/students-with-disabilities-face-barrage-of-school-bus-delays-in-dc/.
 Sam Ford, DC Mom Spends $80/Day to Take Son from Southeast to Special Ed Classes in Georgetown, ABC 7 News (Sept. 1, 2022), https://wjla.com/news/crisis-in-the-classroom/joann-mccray-dc-mom-spends-80day-to-take-her-son-jdon-chisley-from-southeast-to-special-ed-classes-in-georgetown-office-of-the-state-superintendent-of-education.
 Theresa Vargas, D.C. Is Failing Disabled Students Who Rely on Buses to Get to School, Wash. Post (Feb. 8, 2023), https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2023/02/08/disabled-students-buses-dc/.
 Emma Garcia & Elaine Weiss, Student Absenteeism, Econ. Pol’y Inst. (2018), https://www.epi.org/publication/student-absenteeism-who-misses-school-and-how-missing-school-matters-for-performance/.
 In 2015, 26.0 percent of students with IEPs missed three or more days of school compared to 18.3 percent of students without IEPs, and 23.2 percent of students eligible for free lunches and 17.9 percent of students eligible for reduced-price lunches missed three or more days of school compared to 15.4 percent of students ineligible for free or reduced-price lunches. See Emma Garcia & Elaine Weiss, Student Absenteeism, Econ. Pol’y Inst. (2018), https://www.epi.org/publication/student-absenteeism-who-misses-school-and-how-missing-school-matters-for-performance/.
 Sarah A. Cordes et al., Do Long Bus Rides Drive Down Academic Outcomes, 44 Educational Evaluation & Pol’y Analysis 689, 698–702 (2022), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/01623737221092450 (finding that long or very long bus rides were associated with slightly decreased attendance and increased chronic absenteeism in a study of 120,000 school bus riders in New York City); Kristin Blagg et al., The Extra Mile, Time to School and Student Outcomes in Washington, DC, Urban Inst. (2018), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/99027/time_to_school_and_student_outcomes_in_dc_1.pdf (finding that longer commutes were associated with an increased likelihood of changing schools during the school year and between school years for younger students and a slight increase in absenteeism across grade levels in Washington, DC).
 Students with greater tardiness perform worse on standardized tests and students whose classmates are tardy more frequently also have lower test scores. See Michael A. Gottfried, The Achievement Effects of Tardy Classmates: Evidence in Urban Elementary Schools, 25 Int’l J. Rsch., Pol’y, & Prac. 3 (2014). Higher daily classmate tardiness was associated with higher rates of behavioral problems and lower levels of social skills. See Michael A. Gottfried, The Influence of Tardy Classmates on Students’ Socio-Emotional Outcomes, 116 Teachers Coll. Rec. 1–2 (2014).
 See Mariel Varbone, Bus Delays, Cancellations Impacting DC’s Most Vulnerable Students, DC News Now (Jan. 24, 2023), https://www.dcnewsnow.com/news/local-news/washington-dc/bus-delays-cancellations-impacting-dcs-most-vulnerable-students/; Martin Austermuhle, Students with Disabilities Face Barrage of School Bus Delays in D.C., DCist (Jan 20, 2023), https://dcist.com/story/23/01/20/students-with-disabilities-face-barrage-of-school-bus-delays-in-dc/; see also Amy Simpson, City Schools Offers to Pay Hundreds of Parents $250 to Transport Students to Class, Fox45 News (Sept. 3, 2021), https://foxbaltimore.com/news/local/city-schools-offers-to-pay-hundreds-of-parents-250-to-transport-students-to-class.
 Tracy Swartz, First the School Buses Didn’t Show for Many CPS Students. Now It’s the Transportation Reimbursement Checks for their Put-Out Parents, Chicago Trib. (Feb. 10, 2022), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-chicago-public-schools-bus-reimbursement-checks-20220210-skcoae6jtbdotfe23owqjx7azi-story.html.
 See, e.g., Baltimore City Public Schools, City Schools Offers Pay Increase and Bonuses to Recruit and Retain Bus Drivers (Nov. 17, 2021), https://www.baltimorecityschools.org/busdriverincentives; Joni Hess, After a Sickout and Tense Negotiations, Raises Coming to School Bus Drivers in St. Tammany, NOLA (July 25, 2022),https://www.nola.com/news/northshore/after-a-sickout-and-tense-negotiations-raises-coming-to-school-bus-drivers-in-st-tammany/article_de116caa-09f6-11ed-97a8-f7a8a957be49.html.
 See. e.g., Baltimore City Public Schools, City Schools Offers Pay Increase and Bonuses to Recruit and Retain Bus Drivers (Nov. 17, 2021), https://www.baltimorecityschools.org/busdriverincentives; Tim McNicholas, Bus Companies, School Districts Offer Higher Bonuses in Effort to Hire More Drivers, CBS Chicago (June 16, 2022), https://www.cbsnews.com/chicago/news/bus-companies-school-districts-higher-bonuses-drivers/.
 49 C.F.R. 383.
 See e.g., Sarah Rahel, Metro Detroit Schools Partner with Rideshare to Aid Bus Driver Shortage, Detroit News (Oct. 9, 2022), https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/2022/10/09/metro-detroit-schools-partner-with-rideshare-to-aid-bus-driver-shortage/69541546007/.
 See e.g., NYC Department of Education InfoHub, Transportation Resources for Schools, https://infohub.nyced.org/in-our-schools/operations/transportation-resources-for-schools; Oceanside Unified School District, Oceanside Unified School District Transportation Guide, https://docs.google.com/document/d/17LfrDe1MojYBYQf01azm8FEyXR63Eu41/edit; El Dorado Charter Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), Transportation Guidelines & Resources (Nov. 2018), https://charterselpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Transportation-Guidelines-2018-11-1.pdf.
 Oceanside Unified School District, Oceanside Unified School District Transportation Guide 10, https://docs.google.com/document/d/17LfrDe1MojYBYQf01azm8FEyXR63Eu41/edit.