Nationwide, school bus transportation involves large expenditures that are distributed among a huge number of providers, both public and private, large and small. The fragmentation is probably due in part to the long-term, grass-roots evolution of the activity. In “Accent on Safety: A History of the National Conference on School Transportation 1939-1985,” Ernest Farmer reports that in 1840, children in Massachusetts were the first to be formally transported to schools using public resources. The transportation entailed contracts with farmers to take children to and from school.[xix] The first reference to a school-operated busing program occurs in 1900 in the state of Florida.
The fragmentation of the private-sector school transportation market is partly responsible for the dearth of national data on the extent of school district contracting with private transportation firms. What researchers are left with is a collection of state-specific research. For instance, according to the nonprofit Connecticut School Transportation Association, 91 percent of transportation for public and parochial schools — 139 of 153 districts in the state — is provided by private vendors. Consultant Robin Leeds states that the same percentage of school transportation is provided by private carriers in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts figure includes private and parochial schools, according to Leeds, but public school districts make up the majority of the contract business.
Estimates of the extent of school transportation contracting are also available from a number of surveys, including many of those cited above under “Food Service Contracting”:
In a 2001 survey of a nationally representative sample of conventional school districts, American School & University magazine found that 31.8 percent of responding districts reported contracting busing services.
Kenneth May’s survey of New Jersey school privatization in 1997 found that 62.2 percent contracted for student transportation.
The 2002 Alabama Policy Institute study found that 8.1 percent of the Alabama districts that responded to its survey contracted for transportation services to some degree. One of the districts contracted with the county government, which strictly speaking would not qualify as privatization, since the service was not provided by the private sector.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy conducted four statewide school privatization surveys in Michigan between 2001 and 2006. The 2006 survey of the state’s conventional school districts found that 23, or 4.2 percent, reported contracting with private firms for bus services.[xx] This represented a slight increase from 21 districts in 2005.
In the Reason Foundation’s 2007 surveys of conventional public school districts in Arizona and Florida, 6.6 percent of Arizona districts reported contracting for student transportation services, while 5.0 percent reported doing so in Florida.
Naturally, each of these surveys involves a risk of “response bias” — that is, the possibility that the districts that choose to respond to the survey are either more likely or less likely than the nonresponding districts to contract with private firms. Nevertheless, the same surveys’ results for food contracting agreed well with our food service findings, which had far less risk of response bias, and some of the surveys reached the vast majority of districts,[xxi] reducing the potential impact of response bias.
In any event, the results of these surveys suggest a wide variance in contracting from state to state. Given the American School & University figures, and given the figures cited above for Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Alabama, Michigan’s 4.2 percent bus service contracting rate for conventional public school districts is probably well below the transportation contracting rate in many other states.
[xix] For a fascinating history of pupil transportation, see M.C.S. Noble Jr., Pupil Transportation in the United States (Scranton: International Textbook Company, 1940). The book includes a chapter on competitive contracting by public school districts for bus services.
[xx] This figure does not include contracting for transportation of special education students.
[xxi] For instance, both of the Reason Foundation surveys cited above succeeded in contacting about 90 percent of each of the two states’ conventional public school districts. Himebaugh, “Preliminary Brief on Arizona Survey”; Piccolo, “Preliminary Brief on Florida Survey: Contracting School Services.” The Mackinac Center’s direct survey of conventional school districts in Michigan ultimately gathered data for all 552 districts.