Beck: Will wheels on school bus still go ’round?
By Tom Beck Illinois School Transportation Association June 8, 2012 8:28PM
Tom Beck, president of the Illinois School Transportation Association, says Gov. Pat Quinn and legislators should not balance the education budget by reducing funds for school bus service. | File photo
Updated: July 11, 2012 10:18AM
If half the adult work force would, or could, take public transportation to work each day, imagine how much better both our roads and the environment would be.
Fortunately, for those who appreciate clean air, smooth streets and less traffic congestion, there is already a huge population in Illinois that uses mass transit every day — more than 1 million students who ride nearly 30,000 yellow buses to school.
These iconic vehicles save our environment from thousands of vehicles that would otherwise transport many of these youngsters, jamming pick-up and drop-off points at schools and clogging our roads with unnecessary trips.
On average, one school bus eliminates up to 36 vehicles from the road per day. And school buses save roughly 2.3 billion gallons of gas every year across the country.
Buses also save the state of Illinois tens of millions of dollars each year in wear and tear on our roads and pay more than their fair share to maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure — approximately $11.2 million annually in motor fuel tax payments.
The benefits of school bus transportation go beyond easing congestion and protecting the environment.
There’s no safer way for children to get to and from school. Students are 13 times safer and 44 times less likely to be involved in a fatal crash while riding a school bus than in taking any other mode of transportation.
Without student transportation services, many youngsters in rural and exurban communities would face the proverbial “five-mile walk” to school.
And buses help keep kids in school. Studies have shown that as much as 20 percent of student absenteeism can be attributed to school transportation issues.
Despite the many clear advantages, the yellow school bus has been splashed with gallons of red ink by the governor and the General Assembly in recent years. From an appropriation of $350 million in fiscal year 2010, school transportation funding has plummeted in the last three years, with only $205 million recommended for fiscal 2013.
Gov. Pat Quinn and legislators should not balance the education budget on the backpacks of the more than 1 million students who rely on a bus to get to school safely every day.
School districts are faced with an unpleasant choice — either cut transportation service or pass the cost on to parents through higher transportation fees.
Adding to the cost burden, school districts cannot charge for bus service for low-income families with children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
One way to help Illinois school districts meet their transportation costs more effectively would be to revisit a 2007 law that makes it virtually impossible for a district to move from an in-house bus service to a contracted provider.
The economies of scale achieved by an independent contractor allow for cost savings that school districts often cannot attain.
The school bus has been an essential part of our school systems since the days of inkwells and knickers. We need to make sure that a failure to provide appropriate levels of state funding in Illinois doesn’t turn the yellow bus into another nostalgic icon of a bygone era.
Tom Beck is president of the Illinois School Transportation Association, which represents private companies that contract with school districts to provide school transportation.
Approximately one-third of the Illinois school bus fleet is operated by private contractors.