Author Archives: Jennifer Schiess

Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes

When I was a high school teacher, my sophomore and junior students routinely told a tired joke: What’s big, yellow, and full of freshmen? The school bus. There was a stigma attached to riding the school bus. For students who fancied themselves on the cusp of adulthood, the school bus was a vestige of childhood, and they avoided it if they could.

That attitude contrasts with the reverence my own elementary school-aged children have for the bus. All things transit fascinate them, but the school bus holds a special status. It is as magical as Ms. Frizzle, and the bus driver is a superhero. She arrives each day with a big smile and a wave, greeting her tiny charges with their oversized backpacks, and maneuvering her iconic vehicle down darkened city streets.

These conflicting views of school buses symbolize a conflict in school transportation. School buses and school transportation are at once a nostalgic and iconic symbol of American education and a challenged system that often fails to serve students, schools, and communities as well as it could.

Today we release “Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes,” a short animated video that encapsulates the challenges and complex considerations we must grapple with to improve our school transportation systems so that they meet the needs of students, families, schools, and communities. Watch it below:

This video pairs well with Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century, our 2016 paper which dug into the structure, function, successes, and challenges of school transportation systems across the country.

In spite of dramatic changes in transportation (e.g., Uber, Hybrids and electric vehicles, and self-driving cars?) and in schools themselves, school transportation systems haven’t changed much in decades. Addressing school transportation challenges isn’t simple, though. These systems must balance competing, important priorities and interests like student safety, cost, equity, environmental impact, and other factors.

Please watch, enjoy, and share. And Magic School Bus fans should look for the subtle homage to Ms. Frizzle’s world.

Join Us May 2nd at Union Station (with a Yellow Bus!)

The largest system of mass transit in the U.S. isn’t the airline industry. Nor is it trains, or city buses, or even all those things combined. The largest mass transit system in America is made up of the nearly 500,000 school buses transporting students to and from school each day.

Despite innovations in technology, developments in clean fuels, and big changes to the way schools work in many communities, in most places, school transportation operates much as it has for decades.

But should it?

On May 2nd, Bellwether will host a discussion of the role of transportation in education, its many challenges, and some innovations and possible solutions. We hope you’ll join us at Union Station in Washington, D.C. for a light breakfast at 8:45, followed by a lively discussion. At the end of the event, for that dose of nostalgia, we’ll even take you back to work on a yellow school bus!

Seating limited, RSVP today.

The discussion, moderated by Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham, will feature:

  • Cindy Stuart, District 3 representative on the Hillsborough County, Florida school board since 2012, and current board chair. She also represents the school board as a voting member of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the federally-established transportation planning body for the Tampa metropolitan area. This cooperative relationship between the school district and the broader regional transportation planning infrastructure is unique across the country and holds promise for a more coordinated approach to meeting the needs of communities and schools.
  • Mike Hughes, Assistant Director of Transportation at Boston Public Schools (BPS). BPS provides transportation to district, charter, and private schools in the Boston area — navigating a complex cross-sector system of education. Facing escalating costs and other pressures, the district has taken innovative steps to address significant challenges.
  • Joel Weaver, Director of the Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy (CTEA), a charter school located on the Fort Hall Reservation, owned by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, in rural southeastern Idaho. CTEA serves students dispersed over a large geographic area, representative of the challenges many rural schools face in transporting students in safe, efficient, and cost-effective ways.
  • Kristin Blagg, a research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, where she focuses on education policy. She recently co-authored “Student Transportation and Educational Access” with Senior Fellow Matthew Chingos, a paper that explores the role of student transportation in school choice, profiling five choice-rich cities.

We rarely discuss school transportation, but its impact reverberates through the entire school system — raising issues of educational equity, student safety, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impact. Please join us as we explore these issues.

Four (or More) Ideas for Trump’s Education Agenda

It’s over. Finally. Now we all return to calm, reasoned litigation of important issues and cat videos, right? Just kidding, I never liked cat videos anyway.

But seriously, now Donald Trump must shift attention away from winning the election to the business of governing. The President-elect and his transition team must translate all those vague platitudes and pledges to fix our nation’s ills into actual policies and plans, and then select people to lead those efforts.donald-trump-1332922_640

This summer after the conventions, Bellwether published a collection of 16 education policy ideas for the next president. The collection ranges in topics and ideological perspectives — its intention was to provide actionable ideas that could appeal to either campaign and jump start the creation of an education agenda no matter who prevailed on November 8.

Now that we know who will occupy the oval office in January, the next question is how will President-elect Trump’s plans for education shape up.

Throughout the election, the Trump campaign’s primary education focus was school choice. Based on that priority, we think several 16 for 16 suggestions would align well with a Trump administration education agenda centered on creating more education options and empowering families:

  1. Providing federal support to spur development of a range of school options across sectors, public and private (Chapter 12)
  2. Doubling down on the successes of the Charter School Program to seed more autonomous public schools (Chapter 1)
  3. Adapting the successful federal incentives program that drives private investment and development of affordable housing to encourage private investment in charter school facilities (Chapter 10)
  4. Empowering families to create and influence schools that meet their children’s and their communities’ particular needs (Chapter 15)

There are a host of other ideas in our collection that would enable better federal support for students in all our public schools — ranging from the expansion of proven mentoring programs to healthier food for students in the federal government’s multi-billion dollar National School Lunch program. Some ideas are nuts and bolts, good government plays (improving the way the Department of Education holds grantees accountable for results), while others are more cutting edge and innovative (bringing the technology underpinning Bitcoin into the education data space). 

The bottom line is there’s a lot of food for thought to fill in the blanks left from an election cycle that was focused elsewhere. We invite President-elect Trump and his transition team to take a look as they develop the next generation of federal education priorities — the 16 for 16 contributors have teed up a rolling start.

#16for16: A Policy Agenda for the Next President (Whoever That Is)

WhitehouseThis election season has been long on drama and vitriol and woefully short on substantive policy ideas. And K-12 education might win the “Most Ignored Major Policy Issue” superlative in the yearbook of the 2016 campaign. Isolated references to charter schools and feel-good statements about teachers aside, neither Clinton nor Trump has proposed a comprehensive vision for our nation’s public schools. This lack of attention belies the importance and need for an education vision: Although the current administration presided over the passage of the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), the devil is in the details, and the critical work of its implementation will be left to the next administration. But we’d be hard pressed to identify what policies might emerge come January.

We’re here to help.

Bellwether has compiled a collection called 16 for 2016: 16 Education Policy Ideas for the Next President. We solicited ideas from a range of authors across the ideological spectrum, both inside and outside the education sector. You are almost guaranteed to love some of these ideas, and probably hate some too, and that’s the point. No matter who prevails in November, the new presidential administration will need to set an ambitious education agenda. And with this collection, we are priming the pump for whichever candidate is sitting in the Oval Office in January.

In this volume, you’ll find: Continue reading

Candidates Think We Can’t Handle the Complex Truth About Education

The Learning Landscape

We need a nuanced education conversation based on data, not polarizing rhetoric. That’s why we built this new resource: www.thelearninglandscape.org/

Depending on whom you ask, charter schools represent either the best of things or the worst of things in the modern education system. This binary hero-villain dialogue plays out time and again among education advocates. It’s so pervasive that it even managed to infiltrate a presidential election that has otherwise been light on K-12 education talk.

Bernie Sanders declared his support for public charter schools, but not private ones in a CNN town hall event last March — belying a fundamental confusion about what charter schools actually are. Last year Hillary Clinton disparaged charter schools with a blanket statement suggesting that they reject serving students who are the “hardest to teach.” And while decrying the federal footprint in education, Donald Trump said he wants more charter schools because “they work, and they work very well.”

The primary flaw with all of these statements is that each one lacks nuance and ignores what is true, what we know, and what we don’t know about charter schools. After all, one of the hallmarks of political campaigns is the reduction of complex issues to simple binaries. Candidates harp on divisive issues and ask voters to pick a side — for or against, good or bad. While this strategy makes for rousing stump, it misleads and under-informs voters about critical policy issues.

Sanders’ confusion about whether charter schools are public or private schools is not uncommon, but it’s easy to clear up. Charter schools are public schools. They are publicly-funded, and they provide education free of charge. The confusion arises because they are often operated by private organizations (a mix of non-profit and for-profit). Some of these private organizations are very good at running schools that achieve amazing outcomes with kids. Some of them are not as good.

Similarly, by painting all charter schools with the same brush, either negatively or positively, both Clinton and Trump ignore the complex reality of what we know about charter schools. (Clinton, I should note, told the NEA convention earlier this month that we should seek to learn from the many good charter schools – that common sense statement drew boos from the crowd).

In practice, who is served best and most often by charter schools varies significantly from state to state and city to city. And the overall quality of charter schools varies, too. In some cities, like Washington DC, charter schools produce an average of 101 days of additional learning in math compared to the surrounding district schools. That’s a tremendous difference. But in Fort Worth, Texas, charter schools underperform district schools on average.

Attempting to define the whole notion of charter schools as either good or bad encourages us to continue to focus on the existential question of whether we should have charter schools at all. And that is simply the wrong question. Continue reading