Author Archives: Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and Jennifer Schiess

This Financing Model Could Make School Buses Cheaper and Greener, But No One Is Using It

Every day, nearly 500,000 school buses transport students to and from school in districts across the country. Many of these buses are older diesel models that release dangerous emissions, harming both the environment and student health. While cleaner and cheaper alternative fuels like propane, compressed natural gas (CNG), and electric exist, higher upfront costs prevent most districts from transitioning.

The good news: there’s an increasingly popular financial tool out there that could solve this problem.

Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) are typically used to finance programs that can generate both societal benefits and cost savings, particularly programs administered by nonprofit organizations and government entities. Under the SIB model, private investors provide initial capital in exchange for a return funded from eventual cost savings. Those investors, and not taxpayers, absorb the financial losses if these programs do not achieve projected savings. SIBs have been used to fund programs related to prisoner recidivism, high-quality preschool, and reducing common health hazards, with varying levels of success. As of 2016, nine SIBs operate in the United States, with 50 more in development, representing over $90 million in private investment.

As we describe in our recent report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” the benefits of switching to buses that run on alternative fuels are well-documented. And they cost less to run, benefiting district budgets. However, in contrast to the public transit sector, where more than one in three buses runs on alternative fuels or hybrid technology, uptake in the school transportation sector has been limited. Of all buses sold in the U.S. and Canada in 2014, only six percent were alternatively fueled. In 2012, that figure was less than three percent.

This is largely due to the additional costs associated with shifting away from diesel. Propane buses cost about five percent more than their diesel counterparts; that figure is 25 percent for buses run on compressed natural gas. Electric buses, which offer the most cost savings and environmental benefit, are more expensive still — often costing an additional $100,000 to $120,000 more than diesel buses.

Transitioning to these buses may also require infrastructure expenditures in the form of fueling and charging stations. For example, case studies from the Department of Energy estimate that installing a propane fueling station costs between $55,000 and $250,000, depending on the station’s size and equipment.

This is where SIBs can help. For SIBs to work, projects have to attract investors by demonstrating the potential for a return on investment. A number of case studies have provided evidence of the potential cost savings of switching to alternatively fueled buses, savings sufficient to offset the higher upfront cost. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory found savings of between $400 and $3,000 per bus per year associated with replacing diesel with propane, with the incremental costs of the vehicles and related infrastructure being offset over a period of three to eight years. And researchers from the University of Delaware have shown that using an electric school bus instead of a diesel bus could save a district roughly $230,000 per bus over a 14-year lifespan, with the initial investment being recovered after five years.

Alternatively fueled buses are cheaper to fuel, operate, and maintain than diesel buses. Alternative fuels cost less than diesel, and their prices remain relatively stable compared to diesel, which varies with the fluctuation of crude oil prices. There are also a variety of savings from maintenance costs. These buses use less oil and cheaper filters, and unlike their diesel counterparts, they do not require additional treatment to meet federal vehicle emissions standards, potentially saving thousands of dollars in maintenance each year.

Electric buses that use vehicle-to-grid technology — which allows vehicles to communicate and interact with the overall power grid, rather than just draw a charge from it — can even become “prosumers,” meaning they return energy to the grid. The energy stored in the buses’ batteries can be tapped to lower a facility’s electricity bill.

A SIB model for bus replacement could work as follows:

Graphic by authors

SIBs are not without criticism: they may limit the savings that governments could reap from traditional means of public investment. This is the other side of the equation when privatizing potential risk: governments also privatize some of the reward.

However, to date, most districts have not been able to invest the initial capital needed to replace their diesel fleets. Implementing a SIB model could help speed up this process without further draining district budgets. Such a program would not only benefit the environment: districts could also reinvest the savings to improve other aspects of their school transportation systems, or funnel those dollars back into classrooms. It could be a win-win.

To learn more about the current state of the school transportation sector, including how it impacts the environment, read Bellwether’s new report: “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century.”

ICYMI: Recapping Bellwether’s School Transportation Event

This week, Bellwether released a new report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century.” The report analyzes the current state of school transportation from multiple perspectives, including efficiency, educating students, and environmental impact.

In conjunction with the report’s release, we hosted an event at Union Station’s Columbus Club. The event, moderated by Bellwether Partner and Co-Founder Andrew Rotherham, featured a great lineup of panelists with decades of experience in the school transportation sector:

  • Cindy Stuart, Hillsborough County (FL) School Board member and voting member of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization
  • Mike Hughes, Assistant Director of Transportation at Boston Public Schools
  • Joel Weaver, Director and Principal of Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy (CTEA), a Shoshoni language immersion charter school located on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeast Idaho
  • Kristin Blagg, Research Associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, focusing on education policy

The discussion focused on issues that affect school districts across the country — the cost of running buses with empty seats, approaches to providing service to charter schools and other schools of choice, integration of school transportation with public transit systems, and conversion to buses powered by alternative fuels like propane.

Following the event, attendees were shuttled to various parts of the city in — of course — a yellow school bus!

Every day nearly 500,000 school buses transport more than 25 million students to and from school. That fleet of school buses is more than twice the size of all other forms of mass transit combined — including bus, rail, and airline transportation. And yet, it has remained largely unchanged for more than 50 years. As districts continue to grapple with tightening budgets, rising costs, declining ridership, and the ever-changing way in which schools enroll and serve students, school transportation will continue to play an important part in federal, state, and local policy decisions.

To learn more, read the full report, and watch the archived video of the event below.

Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century

We're talking school transportation this morning at Union Station with a great panel! Check out our new report, "Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century." bit.ly/bellwetherbus

Posted by Bellwether Education Partners on Tuesday, May 2, 2017

 

Donald Trump’s Election is a “Sputnik Moment” for Civics Education

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted an event discussing the failings of civics education in America. The panelists referred to the dismal state of civics literacy as a “Sputnik moment” – a reference to when the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first satellite in 1957, stirring the United States to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and dramatically increase its space exploration efforts.

Nothing illustrates this comparison better than the election of Donald Trump. As Trump has demonstrated time and time again, he knows little about governing or policy – instead relying on divisive rhetoric and petulant Twitter tantrums. His most recent gaffe: at a White House convening of the nation’s governors, Trump said that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” As it turns out, many people knew.

However, if Trump can name all three branches of government, that alone would put him ahead of nearly three quarters of Americans. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches, and 31 percent could not name a single one.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also show poor results. In 2014 – the most recent NAEP civics assessment – only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. The same is true of older students getting ready to vote. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level. Neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998.

At the same time, faith in many of America’s institutions are at historic lows – even before Trump’s election. And it’s likely that his constant attacks on various institutions will only serve to worsen these numbers. This crisis of confidence only feeds into the growing level of polarization, making it nearly impossible to govern effectively. It’s no wonder that recent congresses have been arguably some of the least productive ever.

Confidence in Institutions

Despite these difficulties, the American people seem well aware of the problem at hand. According to the 2016 PDK poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools, 82 percent of Americans believe preparing students to be good citizens is very or extremely important. At the same time, only 33 percent think the public schools in their communities are doing that job very or extremely well.

So what is to be done? Continue reading

As Homeschooling Continues to Grow, Here Are 4 Things You Should Know

With ESSA largely pushing accountability back to the states, the continued growth of the charter sector, increasing backlash against standardized testing, and the recent announcement that school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos is President-Elect Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, it is clear that education policy is trending towards local control and school choice. One overlooked aspect of this shift is the growth of homeschooling.

Earlier this month, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report analyzing homeschooling trends in the United States from 1999 to 2012. The practice has become much more popular over the past decade, as the homeschooling rate doubled from 1.7 percent in 1999 to 3.4 percent in 2012. That means there are now roughly 1.8 million students being schooled at home. By comparison, charter schools — which receive much of the education sector’s attention — enroll just under three million students.

So, as the homeschooling sector continues to grow, here are four things you should know: Continue reading

What Good Are Higher Graduation Rates If Students Aren’t Learning More?

On Thursday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the results of its 2015 science assessment for America’s 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students. Only 22 percent of 12th graders scored at or above the proficient level, compared to 38 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders. And while 4th and 8th graders both saw a small but significant improvement from 2009, high school seniors stagnated — earning the same average score as the 2009 sample.

This was also true across all subgroups. Among students of colors, students with disabilities, English language learners (ELLs), rural students, and female students, not a single group saw a statistically significant score change from 2009.2015 NAEP Science Assessment Scores

We saw a similar trend in April, when NAEP released the 12th grade results of its 2015 reading and math assessments. Seniors’ average reading score did not significantly change — again across every single subgroup. The average 12th grade math score declined.

And yet, earlier this month, data released by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) showed that America’s high school graduation rate has reached a record high of 83 percent, continuing a five year trend. In stark contrast with this year’s NAEP data, rates among students of color, students with disabilities, ELLs, and low-income students have all improved.

While this is certainly good news, it begs the question: What good are higher graduation rates if students aren’t learning more?

According to ED Secretary John King: “Students who have a high school diploma do better in the 21st Century economy than students who don’t. So having a higher graduation rate is meaningful progress.” While high school graduates do earn more than non-graduates, this answer is still deeply unsatisfying.

States will have the opportunity to seriously address America’s stagnant high schools in the coming years. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law last December, provides greater flexibility for states in almost every facet of federal K-12 education policy. The law makes it easier for states to spend Title I money on high school students. It also gives states much greater leeway for using school improvement funds, including an optional set-aside for programs like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and career and technical education. It remains to be seen exactly how states will implement the law, but luckily we’ll have NAEP along the way to give us a national snapshot of student learning.

We’re doing a better job of shepherding students to high school completion — now we just need to make sure they actually learn something.