Category Archives: Education Policy

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.”

California’s Revised Bid to Kill Income Tax for Teachers is Still a Bad Idea

A bill providing tax credits to teachers in California is making its way through the state’s legislature. Last month Andy Rotherham and I wrote that Senate Bill 807, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Act, is a gimmicky way to pay teachers more and takes a one-size-fits-all approach to solving a targeted teacher shortage problem.

It looks like the authors of SB807 may have noticed our critique. Since its introduction, the legislation has been revised. Instead of exempting all teachers who remain in the profession for more than five years from paying state taxes, the revised legislation is focused on teachers in high-poverty communities. The new language gives teachers in high-poverty schools immediate state tax relief on half of their income in their sixth through tenth years of teaching.

Admittedly, the revised legislation is better than the original because it takes a more targeted approach to teacher shortage issues. But it’s still a bad idea. As Andy and I wrote, if California legislators want to pay teachers more, then they should just pay teachers more. Providing teachers with tax incentives is a confusing way to raise teacher compensation and doesn’t get at the foundational issues of under-resourced schools and misaligned, archaic state and district teacher compensation systems. This bill — in any form — tinkers at the edges of and distracts from larger issues in California.

This week the bill passed the California Senate Governance and Finance Committee with a unanimous vote, and it’s now headed to the Senate Education Committee. But California lawmakers would be better off if they stop trying to revive this bill and, instead, focus on the larger school finance problems in the state.

Will Educators Lead Incarceration Reform?

Hundreds of thousands of people are released from state or federal prison every year, and nine million more leave local jails.  On the whole, very few people serve life sentences, and at least 95% of prisoners ultimately return home. 

In 2016, the Obama administration designated the last week of April as “National Reentry Week,” an attempt to bring public attention to the challenges facing people who return to their communities after incarceration. It doesn’t look like the Trump administration is upholding the designation — the Department of Justice’s site was archived — but last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unexpectedly visited a youth correctional facility. There she spoke about the role that high-quality education programs play in supporting successful transitions back to community life.

It’s time that educators took the lead in creating substantive policies to support previously incarcerated people as they rejoin their communities. For young people, the move from a secure school back to a community-based program is a crucial moment when students are at risk of losing their earned course credits, experiencing barriers to enrollment, and dropping out entirely. I’ve recently shared data on the importance of this transition. And, for the first time in history, this moment is called out in federal education law: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to develop plans to support that transition. And not only is it in the law,  it even made it into the final federal template:

Screenshot via U.S. Department of Education ESSA template.

While this is big, we should also recognize that progress could be bolder; this section will not be evaluated in the official peer review process, and the guidance says simply that it “will be reviewed by staff at the Department.”

And the news coming out of states suggests that they aren’t taking full advantage of this opportunity either. Of the plans submitted so far, most describe goals and strategies for transition plans that are cursory and vague (or both). One describes a committee that is planning to develop a plan. Another gives staffing levels that are woefully insufficient to meet the need — one transition specialist for an entire agency. Almost all describe a lack of good assessment tools to properly track achievement. Of course, doing something is better than nothing. But the problem has rarely been that states are truly doing nothing, it’s that what they are doing doesn’t work. Researchers estimate that upwards of 60 percent of young people who are incarcerated will never successfully return to school.

This opens a unique opportunity for state education advocates to push their education leaders to do more. DeVos’s visit, coupled with the explicit language in ESSA and in the federal template, suggests that this discussion — long relegated to the dusty corners of corrections reform — may have finally, firmly found a foothold in federal education policy.

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

 

We Need Real Education Transition Policies for Incarcerated Students

Last month, I gave testimony before the California Senate Education Committee on SB 304, a bill to define the required elements of an education transition plan for a student leaving a juvenile court school and returning to a community-based school. Current California law requires agencies to coordinate a transition plan but doesn’t specify what needs to be in that plan. Some jurisdictions have developed robust policies and practices supporting integrated service provision and continuous care, but many have not, leaving already marginalized students to fend for themselves when their education is disrupted.

The outcomes aren’t good: incarcerated ninth graders may eventually return to school in their communities but within a year of re-enrolling, an estimated two-thirds to three-fourths drop out. After four years, less than fifteen percent of them will complete high school. Aside from hurting these students’ lives and opportunities, this pattern destabilizes communities, creates a drag on our economy, and affects the outcomes for the next generation of young people.

This bill defines the elements of a transition plan, including the most basic expectations like a portfolio of documents that includes current transcripts and results of academic assessments. Conveniently, this bill aligns perfectly with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which now requires states to provide transition plans that assist students moving from correctional facilities to locally operated schools. Continue reading