Could ride-sharing become a widespread replacement for traditional modes of school transportation? In March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised Denver's school district for providing transportation to underserved students attending both traditional public and charter schools. The program, called the Success Express, helps bus students to schools they're enrolled in outside their typical residential assignment areas, helping them exercise more choices in where to attend. But in many communities, students aren't so lucky.
In February, a report from the Urban Institute tracked how transportation issues undercut the promise of school choice in some of the places with the most educational options for students. Several cities well-known for school choice, including Denver, still face gaps in their transportation infrastructure, according to the report. Programs like the Success Express run into problems coordinating with city educational and transportation authorities, not to mention the reluctance of some district officials to let their resources benefit schools of choice.
Luckily, school finance is becoming increasingly individualized, giving districts more flexibility when it comes to getting kids to school. The conversation no longer needs to be centered on cities fixing the problem from the top down by buying and operating more school buses. Why not give families the option to use a portion of their students' individual education funding to take advantage of market-based transportation alternatives?
Startups like HopSkipDrive in Los Angeles, Zum in San Francisco, and Zemcar in Boston already cater to busy parents who need someone to bring their kids to and from school and other activities. These companies put a premium on safety and trust, typically hiring drivers who have experience working with kids and subjecting them to extensive background checks. Parents can schedule pickups in advance from a small pool of recurring drivers the family can build trust in and familiarity with. Like with Uber or Lyft, these firms constantly track their cars via GPS, with some even letting parents view a live video feed of their kids' commute.
If parents can use programs like tax-preferred education savings accounts (ESAS) to take advantage of such services, it could help these companies, which are still in their early stages, scale up fast to meet additional demand. In three of the five states that have implemented ESAS, these funds can already be used for transportation costs.
Access to a choice is as important as having one in the first place. Until now, transportation has been a major obstacle to giving students better educational options. With the right policies in place, it can instead be a way to make parents' lives easier while promoting innovation.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Uber, But for School Buses".