New policy brief examines K-12 transportation, effect of modernization grants

Education reform group A for Arizona recently released a policy brief entitled “Driving Excellence,” which examines the current state of K-12 transportation and the impact that the Transportation Modernization Grant Program (TMGP) has had. Arizona has long been a leader in student-centered education with robust offerings of schooling models.

However, antiquated student transportation systems have largely been ignored during this transformative process. Last year, the Arizona Legislature and Governor Ducey recognized this need for change in school transportation programs and created the Transportation Modernization Grant Program to challenge entrepreneurial leaders to propose and implement “efficient, safe, cost-effective and student appropriate options.” 

“The current system built around the 80-passenger yellow school bus as the sole strategy has made it difficult and expensive for school leaders to update how students are safely transported to and from school,” said Emily Anne Gullickson, Founder and CEO of A for Arizona. “Two challenges that repeatedly came up during our conversations with school leaders were the bus driver shortage and the desire to rethink expensive but crucial transportation strategies and equipment from the ground up. It is no surprise that when we gave Arizona’s school, business, and local leaders permission and seed funding to think boldly, they rose to the occasion and delivered for thousands of students and families in rural, urban, and suburban communities throughout the state.”  

The Transportation Modernization Grant Program, launched in FY2022, was allocated $20 million of state funding. During the first application cycle, 71 district and charter systems, nonprofits, and local governments, representing each of the 15 counties, applied for over $50 million to move forward with their solution to the transportation issues currently facing Arizona’s education system. 

In the first awarding cycle, the program doled out over $18 million across 24 proposals.

The winning solutions aim to provide direct support to families in need through grants, increase the use of high-efficiency vehicles to drive down the costs associated with student transportation, and develop innovative approaches to creating technology that will better communicate with parents and guardians and create more efficient routes.

The brief highlights the lessons learned from the past grant year and makes five policy recommendations for the state and national entities looking to tackle K-12 transit barriers in their own states.

Policy Recommendation #1 

Create a system that is more flexible to address the issues that have arisen. 

“Overly rigid regulations from a long-past era leave schools twisting themselves into pretzels to find the sweet spot that allows them to use funding to right size their fleets to save money while also having the regulatory freedom to actually use these more efficient and easier to staff vehicles,” the brief says. 

Ensuring that both the regulatory environment and funding going to transportation are flexible allows for a variety of different transportation solutions to be adopted.

Policy Recommendation #2 

Creating an environment where schools and districts can make the decisions that will best serve their student population through both funding and regulatory restraints.

“The micro transit solutions from the grant proposals beautifully illustrate the need and breadth of possible solutions,” the brief says.

Policy Recommendation #3

Make dedicated funding available to all public school models that provide transportation programming to their students.

“Authorize options to provide charter schools the same dedicated funding that districts enjoy when charter schools provide transportation to their students. Without this, charter school students and families are not being provided the same opportunity of access.”

Policy Recommendation #4

Promote and allow collaboration between school systems and community partners to address transportation problems.

“Common transportation gaps across communities include getting high school students to and from career training, clubs and work as well as after school opportunities for students of all ages. Partnering with other school systems and community partners for shared transportation solutions is cost effective, limits the need for new drivers, and is easier on students.”

Policy Recommendation #5

Work to regularly update and modernize the transportation infrastructure and regulatory frameworks on the state and federal level in order to keep up with the ever-changing technology. 

“One-time funds to pilot new strategies before permanently redirecting existing budgets toward in-lieu, rideshare, smaller vehicles or other strategies that charter schools and districts are trying for the first time allows modernization and innovation without risking operational funds,” the brief says. “Having to pilot ideas with committed operational funding leads schools to hanging on to old equipment and strategies past their useful life.”

To read the full brief, click here. 

Taylor Hersch

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