Skip to main content

States Tackle Challenges of Getting Students to and From School

Rising costs and bus driver shortages have states considering transportation alternatives.

By Lauren Gendill  |  June 17, 2024

School transportation navigates a road full of challenges. A recent survey found that 92% of education and transportation staff faced bus driver shortages. Previous reports highlight the national school bus driver shortage and increased per pupil transportation expenditures. These challenges arise amid recent attention on the multiple causes of chronic student absenteeism, which include the means by which students arrive at and attend school.

In response to these challenges, legislatures in 24 states have enacted at least 40 school transportation bills since 2020. These measures have established task forces and studies, created new measures on school bus and motor vehicle contracts, and initiated programs on alternative modes of transportation.

Task Forces and Studies

At least five states have established task forces or commissioned studies on school transportation in recent years. In 2023, Colorado created a task force to recommend strategies on transportation issues, and Hawaii organized an advisory committee under the Department of Transportation.

Maine, Maryland and Pennsylvania have enacted legislation on school transportation task forces and studies specific to school buses. Maine directed its secretary of state to make recommendations on the school bus shortage. A Maryland task force focused on one county’s school bus operator contracts and produced a final report with recommendations in four areas: driver compensation, contract structure, joint employer status, and existing regulations on driver safety and student discipline. Pennsylvania’s Joint State Government Commission summarized the state’s school bus shortages and recommended changes to funding, compensation and benefits, working conditions and safety.

Driver Shortages

School districts have attributed bus driver shortages to recruitment, retirement and pay challenges, as well as private industry considerations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, hourly average wages for elementary and secondary school bus drivers rank below other industries, in some cases by nearly $10.

Virginia amended reporting requirements for personnel shortages to include school bus drivers in 2020. West Virginia established a definition for “areas of critical need and shortage for substitute bus operators” and authorized retired bus drivers to serve as substitutes in these areas. A previous bill authorized recruitment and training programs for prospective bus operators.

States have also established initiatives related to contract stability, increased pay and benefits for drivers. Rhode Island requires school transportation contracts to provide payment for 180 days, or the length of the contracted school year, and incorporates school transportation services into existing statutory public works contract requirements. Ohio created a flexible career path model allowing drivers to complete bus routes then serve as educational aides or student monitors for the remainder of the workday. This year, Washington established new benefit requirements for school transportation contractors.

Apart from school bus drivers, Florida established a program to provide recruitment and retention stipends to crossing guards at K-12 schools using funds generated from the state’s school zone speed detection system.

Buses and Alternatives

Traditionally, school districts provide transportation for students using district-owned vehicles or by contracting with a private provider. Because of rising transportation costs and staffing challenges, states have recently considered legislation on contracts, programs and funding for smaller buses and alternative means of transportation.

Although vehicle definitions may vary, this includes the operation of type A or B school buses with a capacity not exceeding 30 passengers, compared with conventional, or type C, school buses, which are larger and can transport more than 30 students. Arizona provides for the use of type A or B school buses and motor vehicles designed to carry 11-15 passengers. Georgia permits the use of vehicles with a capacity of eight or fewer passengers, and Kentucky allows vehicles transporting nine or fewer riders. During the 2024 legislative session, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois and Virginia are considering bills allowing the use of smaller vehicles for school transportation.

While some states have focused on buses and vehicles, others have looked to alternatives such as public transit, rideshare programs and active forms of transportation, such as walking and biking. In 2023, Oregon adopted rules for the reimbursement of alternative transportation costs, and Arkansas created the a grant program authorizing the use of funds for resource sharing, rideshare programs, carpools, cost-effective services and options addressing personnel challenges and parents. Indiana established a pilot program on innovative approaches to increase student transportation.

Navigating Complexities

With increased attention on school transportation services have come considerations of potential safety implications. Bills expanding the use of vehicles other than buses have included vehicle operator licensing requirements, safety inspections and insurance coverage. Kentucky enacted policy guidelines and regulations on qualifications, training, non-school bus passenger vehicle standards and specifications, route safety standards and drop-off protocols. Louisiana recently required public schools to establish policies that include carpool and bus line safety procedures for K-5 students.

In addition to safety concerns, legislators continue to navigate variables such as geography and enrollment, along with college and career readiness. North Dakota created transportation funding requirements relating to open enrollment, special education, and career and technical education students. Recently, Indiana authorized the use of specified vehicles to transport students to and from a career or technical education program, and New Hampshire provided funding for transportation to CTE centers. Oregon authorized transportation services for eligible students attending postsecondary institutions.

Lauren Gendill is a policy analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.