As carting kids around has become the defining act of modern parenthood, the K-12 experience has increasingly revolved around the school pickup line. (Don’t bother Googling that. One actual example: “Will you be my student loans? Because I’d like to have you around for the rest of my life.”)
For an expert evaluation of school pickup lines, we called University of Kansas economist Misty Heggeness. When she moved from school-bus-saturated suburban Maryland to the transit-challenged outskirts of Kansas City, Kan., Heggeness discovered her own “deeply personal hell” — two hours a day spent waiting in, or driving to, an endless queue of SUVs and sedans in front of her children’s middle and high schools.
As a researcher who measures gender inequality and the burdens that mothers face, Heggeness understands the value of parents’ time. She even calculated how much the district would owe her for daily kid deliveries, if it paid her a going rate — which, of course, it does not. It’s a lot. Heggeness said she can’t believe other parents aren’t as ripsnorting riled up as she is.
“Why is nobody fixing this?” she asked us, rhetorically. “Why aren’t parents speaking up?”
Perhaps answering her own question, she later explained that “the experiences of the pandemic made parents much more willing to put up with these types of shenanigans just to get the kids back in school.” Then this “really inefficient equilibrium … became the new routine.”
The coronavirus pandemic accelerated a shift long in the making, said Dave Cowan, a genial walking-and-biking-to-school booster with the nonprofit Safe Routes Partnership. Fifty years ago, feet and pedals dominated the school transportation scene, but that depended on schools being built in the heart of dense neighborhoods.
“We’ve moved our schools to where land is less expensive and more expansive, but less accessible to those walking and bicycling,” Cowan told us. “When we build schools on the edge or out of town, we create a long-term transportation problem because now we commit to a lifetime of transporting students to that school.”
A crisis like the pandemic amplifies the structural issues we’ve built into our schools, Cowan said. Some bus drivers refused to work because of the health threat. Others cashed in on their commercial drivers’ licenses to make far more money elsewhere in the booming transportation industry. In recent months, drivers have been some of the most in-demand workers in the entire country, according to data from Indeed that compares job openings with their pre-pandemic levels.
To papier-mâché over the driver shortfall, schools are slashing bus service, changing hours, canceling days and even paying parents to drive their own offspring. Philadelphia, for example, pays parents $300 a month, or $3,000 a year per household. The program began in 2020 and now includes 16,000 students, not far below the 23,000 students who use yellow buses (but well below the 55,000 who rely on public-transit fare cards).
A little deeper in the transportation survey, we found that not all parents were responding to bus cutbacks by driving their own children. Rising pickups were driven entirely by parents like Heggeness — those with college degrees. Before the pandemic, about 55 percent of kids with at least one parent who had a four-year college degree were driven (or drove) to school. By 2022, that was 62 percent. Their bus ridership fell by a corresponding amount.
Meanwhile, students whose parents don’t have a four-year degree have seen a slight rise in school bus use. Unlike their better-off friends, their use of private vehicles hasn’t budged. They’re even walking and biking to school less often.
The proliferating pickup lines seem to be driven more by necessity than choice. The ride to school isn’t exactly quality time. Heggeness reminds us that “for most parents, getting their kids out of the house in the morning for school is not a pleasant experience.” And experts like Daniel Mendoza, who researches atmospheric sciences and internal medicine at the University of Utah, say the long lines of idling internal combustion engines pose an obvious health risk.
To speak with Mendoza is to stumble into the eye of an emissions-research hurricane. With almost every sentence, he points to a new analysis underway, a new sensor or ventilation system he’s testing, or a new social experiment he’s conducting. Much of it focuses on how pollution affects students, schools and communities in unequal ways — a particularly urgent issue in Salt Lake, where winter inversions along the Wasatch Front trap dispiriting brown air in a “pollution blister” around the city.
At one school, Mendoza’s measurements showed that outside exhaust finds its way into classrooms within 35 minutes to 73 minutes. Once inside, it lowers student math and English performance, he found. Others have linked long-term exposure to such pollutants with childhood obesity, asthma, depression and anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and myriad other conditions — especially when you include pollution’s effects on expectant mothers.
Given its hassles and hazards, why are more educated — and probably more affluent — parents more willing to brave the line? Matt Crespi, program director of the Civic Mapping Initiative at the National League of Cities, spends his life deep in the weeds of Americans’ transportation decisions. So, we asked him.
Crespi suggested that we consider a new factor: Could bus ridership be falling because more people are — like the economist Heggeness — moving to places with poor bus coverage? After all, college-educated Americans are substantially more mobile than their less-educated friends.
Indeed, data supports this theory. Some of the fastest-growing states in the pandemic era are also the ones with the worst bus service, according to data from School Bus Fleet, a trade magazine with a self-explanatory title. Fewer than a third of public-school kids in Idaho, the state with the fastest-growing child population from 2019 to 2022, get to school by bus. If we split the country in two — the half with worse bus service and the half with better bus service in the 2018-2019 school year — we see that the child population in the worse half grew almost twice as rapidly.
But fewer than 1 in 10 Americans move their house in a given year. So Crespi pointed us toward a bigger factor: remote work. Flexible workplaces and schedules have obviously made it easier for Heggeness and her peers to slip away from work and cart around the kids.
Not all parents have that privilege. Among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 39 percent worked remote or hybrid in December, compared with just 7 percent of people with a high school diploma or less, according to our friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But if their parents can’t interrupt their shift at the factory or the Fuddruckers to pick up kids, what are the children of less-fortunate parents doing? Given that researchers have found a strong link between lower socioeconomic status and high absenteeism, it seems likely that some of them have not gone to school at all.
Applied economist Michael Gottfried, now at the University of Pennsylvania, called this idea perfectly plausible. And he would know: His research into the causes and consequences of absenteeism in America’s schools has been cited just about everywhere. It also has transformed him into an unabashed bus booster.
“I believe the bus is a lifeline for students,” he told us.
He said districts looking to trim spending often see yellow buses as relatively easy to cut, because they don’t directly involve teaching and protections for support staff are weaker. But that overlooks their effect on attendance.
“The bus literally takes kids to school. Like, that is its function,” Gottfried said. “If we’re concerned about absenteeism — which we are — we’re literally getting rid of something whose job is to take kids to school.”
To measure the scope of America’s attendance crisis, we called Liz Cohen, who read 127 books last year while raising three kids and collecting data on chronic absenteeism in public schools at FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
“While we’ve always had populations of kids who attended school less regularly,” she said, “there has really been a seismic shift since covid.”
Cohen and her colleagues found that about 25 percent of public K-12 students in the typical state missed more than 10 percent of the most recently completed school year. That’s almost double the rate for the school year ending in 2019, according to figures from about two thirds of U.S. states and D.C.
Cohen, Heggeness, Gottfried and others agreed that the long-run cost of students missing school obviously would be far higher than anything schools might be saving by cutting back on bus service.
“It might seem obvious, but when you don’t go to school, you’re not going to learn as much, so you’re going to perform less well on tests,” Cohen said. “Your grades are going to go down. You are less likely to succeed on all sorts of measures.”
Good day! The Department of Data runs on your quantitative curiosity. What are you wondering about: What are the most common thermostat settings? Are kids these days less likely to wear coats in cold weather? How do U.S. state economies compare with European states and provinces? Just ask!
If your question inspires a column, we’ll send you an official Department of Data button and ID card. This week, we owe one to P.W. in North Carolina who inspired this column by asking “like landlines and using checks, are students riding yellow public school buses approaching extinction?”