Policy Analysis

Research: School Bus Ridership Reduces Absenteeism

A recent research project uncovered a tie between kindergartners who ride the school bus and lower absenteeism. Those students are also less likely to be "chronically absent" (defined as missing more than 10 days during the school year) than students who arrive in any other way. The findings, which examined data from the 2010-2011 school year, could influence decision-making in districts that are currently considering cutting or restricting bus service as a cost-savings maneuver.

The research was undertaken by Michael Gottfried, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Using a representative sample of 14,370 public school students from a U.S. Department of Education study, he found a difference of two percentage points in chronic absenteeism between children who took the bus (12 percent) and those who didn't (14 percent) and an overall difference in the mean number of days missed of 0.76 days. While the gap appears slight, the impact could be huge.

Current estimates suggest that 5 million to 7.5 million children in K-12 schools miss a month or more of school every year in the United States. That's a combined 150 million to 225 million instructional days lost per year. Since districts aren't paid for students who are absent, the cost to schools can be staggering. In California, for example, school districts lost out on a total of $4.5 billion in potential revenue between 2011 and 2015 for absences, according to Gottfried.

He found in additional analysis that the use of bus ridership could reduce the number of kindergartners who are chronically absent by nearly 50,000 students and could lower the number of lost instructional days by about 1.04 million for this grade alone.

The issue posed by Gottfried's project is timely. Public schools and districts are looking at a reduction in bus pickup to relieve financial pressures. Some districts — Chicago among them — have canceled school bus service altogether. And charter and private schools have no requirements to offer school bus service at all. Three in 10 students analyzed in the study commuted to school by bus; five in 10 were driven by parents; 8 percent walked to school; and 2 percent were driven by adults other than parents.

"Reducing absenteeism in young children is critically important to their futures," Gottfried said in a prepared statement. "Absenteeism in kindergarten has been shown to have short- and long-term links to poor academic performance and future absenteeism."

Previous research has found a link between absenteeism and grade retention and dropout, among other negative outcomes. Plus, Gottfried noted, absenteeism has "spillover effects." When classmates miss more school, "all students in the classroom tend to have lower test scores."

He said he hopes that the research will persuade school leaders to think twice "before they limit the resources on which families rely to ensure their children attend school every day."

The complete report is openly available on the Sage Journal website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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