Adequate Funding for Public School Transportation

For many public school students, the school day starts by riding on the bus. Indeed, adequate school transportation is essential for the 932,693 students in Georgia who ride the bus daily.[1] Unfortunately, to the detriment of these students and school transportation employees, the Georgia General Assembly has consistently underfunded transportation costs for decades and the policy consequences of these annual decisions are dire.

A major investigation by State Affairs found the underfunding of bus transportation by the state has evoked several problems: aging buses, safety concerns, bus driver shortages, overcrowding, and overall adverse effects on student achievement and well-being.[2] Currently, 32 percent of school buses in Georgia are 15 years or older, the age at which buses are beyond their intended lifespan.[3] Moreover, such older buses compromise the well-being of students. The investigation found that 25 percent of inspected buses had out-of-service defects or posed safety risks and buses manufactured before 2007 lacked modern safety features.[4]

Because of inadequate funding statewide, individual school districts struggle to pay just compensation and a living wage. In Georgia, school bus drivers earn an average of $15.82 per hour, and the average base salary is 21 percent below the national average.[5] The profession also remains unattractive as private sector wages outpace those school districts offer. [6]

The undesirable salaries have thus fueled bus driver shortages. In some districts, the shortages are so severe that they have forgone driver skills evaluations and evacuation drills.[7] Some drivers now cover double and triple routes. Alternatively, some districts have deployed teachers, resource officers, and other transportation employees to drive buses each morning. Driver shortages have led to overcrowded buses, with students’ legs in the aisles or even standing.

The impact of both aging buses that break down mid-route and driver shortages ultimately falls on Georgia students. These two issues have led to chronic student tardiness, which impacts student achievement in first-period classes, and students may miss school-provided breakfast.[8] The State Affairs investigation also found that 68 percent of students spend increased time on bus rides home after school, a 65 percent increase in the frequency of late arrival at school, a 50 percent increase in behavioral problems on buses, a 34 percent decrease in field trips and 22 percent impact on school sports and other extracurricular activities.[9]

Multiple factors contribute to the underfunding of school transportation. First, until recently, the state has not appropriated the total allocation of funding calculated by the state’s education formula, provided by The Quality Basic Education Act.[10] For instance, in 2017, the formula called for $302 million in spending, but the legislature provided only $130 million.[11] Second, the formula does not account for rising transportation costs. The formula undercounts the number of bus drivers in the state, and the state cut funding for health insurance for bus drivers, leaving school districts to cover that expense. Third, since 2011, the formula has not included funds for bus replacement.[12] In 2020, the legislature approved $20 million in bonds to replace buses, which equated to replacing only 6.3 percent of all buses 15 years or older.[13

The downstream effects of transportation underfunding by the legislature have substantially increased financial burdens on local school districts to fund driver salaries and replace buses. Districts have compensated by flat-lining driver wages and benefits, making recruiting new employees and replacing older buses challenging. [14, 15] Also, local districts must raise funds by increasing property taxes or using Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) campaigns.[16] However, rural districts with smaller tax property bases and low business activity struggle to generate funds this way. In total, state underfunding has not only depleted investment in other transportation operations but also other operations, such as instruction.[17

To correct for the underfunding, Georgia must re-evaluate the current funding formula. To do so, the General Assembly must continue its recent trend of fully funding the education formula. Second, it must modernize the formula to account for rising transportation costs. The State School Superintendent, Richard Woods, has advocated for this measure.[18] Third, the state must increase investment in school bus replacement. In 2012, a legislative report by the Education Finance Study Commission recommended that the state allocate $45 million per year to keep the fleet of operating buses in their proper lifecycle.[19] In 2022, at Gov. Brian Kemp’s recommendation, the legislature appropriated $63 million to replace buses and incentivize districts to purchase energy-efficient buses.[20] The funding will occur over three years for a total of $188 million in spending, allowing districts to reduce one-third of buses at least 15 years old.[21] This measure is a significant step in the right direction, but the legislature must consistently fund bus replacements each year. Lastly, Georgia must re-balance the state’s and districts’ shares of transportation funding. The state should return to covering half the cost of transportation, as the 2012 commission report recommended.

Students and bus drivers across the state are counting on the General Assembly to fund school transportation equitably. Greater state investment in school transportation will resolve ongoing failures within the transportation system, including aging buses, safety concerns, bus driver shortages, overcrowding, and detriments to student achievement and well-being. Additional investment will ease financial pressure on local districts and allow them to reduce property taxes, cover school employees’ rising healthcare costs, and reduce school spending deficits.[22] Most of all, increased funding will create a realistic trajectory for school districts to achieve long-term education goals, such as reducing class sizes, hiring more instructional coaches, purchasing additional instructional materials, and expanding course offerings.