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Less Costly, More Equitable Bus Routes Possible, But Lack Political Will, Study Finds

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Teenagers learn and remember more when they get more time to sleep in the morning, but making that happen can be tricky, since it requires costly changes in transportation routes to set school earlier. A new study suggests that even transportation changes that save money and ease students' schedules can be tough to pay for politically.

"School start time is not only about busing," said Sebastien Martin, a co-author of the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a researcher with the Operations Research Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's about many things. It's about the life of parents. It's about the health of teenagers, and it's about equity in the system."

In most districts, transportation and school start times are intricately connected and difficult to change, even as school populations ebb and flow. Over time, that makes bus systems less efficient, more expensive—and often biased in favor of wealthier enclaves, the MIT researchers found. In Boston, for example, the researchers found low-income high school students were more likely to face early start times than their wealthier peers, as the chart below shows.

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A busing system developed by the center uses two separate algorithms: One to allow district administrators to weigh the most efficient routes and cost of buses to use them; and the other to schedule school start times based on costs but also other factors, such as providing later start times for teenagers and preventing younger students from arriving home after dark. According to the study and a separate district equity analysis, Boston's initial transportation plan, adopted last year, would have:

  • Raised the number of secondary students who start school after 8 a.m. from 27 percent to 94 percent;
  • Halved the percentage of elementary students who end school after 4 p.m.;
  • Distributed start times so that more than half of students in every racial group (as opposed to just white students) would start school between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.; and
  • Saved the district $20 million per year in transportation costs. 

More than 40 other districts and the state of Rhode Island have since started exploring the system for transportation changes. While Boston used the algorithms to adopt some changes—saving $5 million per year in bus costs—backlash from parents at some schools with changed start times have so far stymied Boston's broader implementation of the plan.

"It's a very hard policy decision; parents have very strong opinions about this," Martin said. "The algorithm is not able to make a political decision. It's only able to show many trade-offs."

For more on districts' efforts to adjust school start times and other physical issues that affect student achievement, see Education Week's special report. You can also see video testimony about the use of the busing algorithm in Rhode Island here.

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