Understanding and Innovating Transportation Access to Education: A Study of K-12 Student Transportation in California

Research Team: Evelyn Blumenberg (lead), Tierra Bills, Samuel Speroni, Jesus Barajas, Katherine Turner

UC Campus(es): UC Davis, UCLA

Problem Statement: School choice is the process of allowing families to choose the K-12 educational options that best fit the needs of their children. Proponents of school choice contend that it provides alternatives to traditional public schools for children who have poor educational options in their neighborhoods and/or for children with other special needs and/or interests. In contrast, critics argue that spending public funds to support choice schools undermines the traditional public school system, which educates the majority of California’s children. Despite the ongoing debate over the merits of school choice, in California families have a growing number of school choice options. As of 2020-21, about 25 percent of K-12 students in California attended a charter, magnet, and/or private school. While the percentage of students attending private schools has declined over time, public school choice options have grown. Families need transportation to both find and regularly attend a school located outside of their local attendance zone. Yet, most choice programs have not been designed with access to schools in mind, and California does not require charter schools to even consider transportation in initial applications. A high percentage of low-income families (one third in Denver, Colorado, and Washington, DC) report that they would send their child to a better school located further from their home if they had adequate transportation. However, many low-income families do not have adequate transportation. They are less likely than higher-income households to have reliable access to an automobile. Moreover, outside of very large, transit-rich cities, public transit has difficulty serving the school trip and this can have negative consequences for student academic outcomes. Finally, research shows that school bus eligibility is associated with a higher likelihood of selecting a choice school and decreased rates of absenteeism. Yet the share of students with access to district-provided transportation has declined over time: as of 2009 only one in eight California students is bused to school, one-third the national average. Very little of this research centers on California, despite the fact that state policy differs from most other states.

Project Description: To better understand disparities in access to high-quality schools and to inform school transportation policy, the researchers will draw on multiple statewide data sources and analyze the relationship between transportation and school choice in California. They will test whether students with access to transportation resources—either personal or public—are more likely to attend a school that is located outside of the student’s neighborhood attendance zone. Transportation resources to be considered will include (a) the availability of household vehicles, (b) residential location in dense urban areas where students may be more likely to travel to schools by public transit relative to other neighborhoods, and (c) public expenditures on school transportation.

Status: In Progress

Budget: $81,630