School bus driver shortages, exacerbated by the pandemic, have led schools to alter bus routes, shrink areas with service and even cancel school. A recent poll by the National School Transportation Association found more than half of those surveyed were still at least 10% short of drivers.
One solution districts in some states implemented was paying parents a stipend to drive their own children to school. A charter school in Delaware offered parents $700 a year for dropping off and picking up each child. Baltimore City Public Schools offered some parents $250 in September to do the same.
Legislation in Oklahoma, authored by Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Depew, offers a similar solution. House Bill 3086 would give school districts “innovation grants” they could use to pay parents or neighborhood carpools to deliver students to school. Funds for the program would be addition to schools’ current transportation funding.
The bill passed the House last week and moved to the Senate for consideration.
Low pay and poor benefits are one reason for the bus driver shortage, says the National Education Association. But urban sprawl and a decades-long move away from walkable communities is likely contributing to the costs schools face. Discussions during last year’s open transfer bill, which allows students to more easily and frequently transfer out of their neighborhood school, led Hilbert to consider school bus alternatives.
But that raises questions about who’s liable if something goes wrong.
School bus drivers are required to have a commercial driver’s license. Their driving record and criminal history are checked. They also have to undergo drug and alcohol testing. They receive annual physicals to check for heart problems, epilepsy and hearing and vision impairments that could affect their driving.
Rep. Cynthia Roe, R-Lindsay, last week asked Hilbert who would be responsible if a parent driving several neighborhood children to school got into an accident and they were hurt or killed. “Is it going to be the parent driving? Is it going to be the Department of Education that issued that grant? Is it going to be the school district?”
Hilbert said it would be up to the state Education Department to design rules for the program after it’s signed into law.
“My intent would be that it would be the third party that would bear liability, not the school district or the parents,” he said.
— Jennifer Palmer
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