Mapping the Connection Between Public Transportation and School Absenteeism

By Andrew Myers

Inspiration comes in many forms. For Marc Stein, who studies the social contexts of schools, it was a story he heard on his local National Public Radio station one day on the way to work in 2015.

The story traced the fraught journey of a lone schoolgirl as she negotiated her way from home to school via Baltimore’s public transportation. The title of the piece, “No Yellow Buses Here,” as Stein still remembers clearly more than four years later, perfectly encapsulated the quandary many Baltimore schoolkids face. In the era of school choice and slashed budgets that have gutted yellow-bus programs, lots of Baltimore City kids must make long commutes each day by public transport to attend their preferred schools.

It’s actually about 30,000 kids every day, Stein says. What’s more, Baltimore is not an isolated case among major metropolitan areas. It’s safe to say millions of kids all across America each day experience similar commutes.

“The story just really stayed with me,” he recalls. “It got me wondering about the effect on attendance.”

Stein is not your ordinary NPR listener. Not only was he intrigued by the possibilities, he was in a position to do something about it. He is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Education and research co-director of the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, called BERC. Stein quickly decided to study the effect all that travel has on the students’ attendance.

Soon after he heard the story, purely by happenstance, Stein says he was on a work group on attendance with Baltimore community organizations and other stakeholders, when he learned that every Baltimore schoolkid who lives more than a mile and a half from their chosen school is provided a One Card that allows them to ride public transport to and from school. Those cards, Stein learned that day, are tied to the kids’ student ID numbers and offered a deluge of data charting in exact detail the commutes of thousands of kids.

“With that data alone, I thought, ‘There has to be a study here,’” Stein recalls.

As a researcher who uses mixed methods to study complex problems, Stein began to gather and to cross-link other data sources. He got bus and rail data from a public database called the Google Transit Feed Specification—the same data that allows commuters to calculate remarkably accurate commute times via Google Maps. Next, he blended in crime data from the Baltimore Police Department charting specific locations of crime incidents, and then, of course, there was school attendance data from the school district similarly tied to student ID numbers.

Almost four years later, in March 2019, Stein and Johns Hopkins colleague Jeffrey Grigg, published a study, “Missing Bus, Missing School: Establishing the Relationship Between Public Transit Use and Student Absenteeism,” in the American Educational Research Journal. The paper tied changing transportation demands between middle and high school to the fact that high school students miss more days than they did in middle school.

Likewise, Stein and Grigg were co-authors of the study “Danger on the Way to School: Exposure to Violent Crime, Public Transportation, and Absenteeism,” published in February in the journal Sociological Science with first author Julia Burdick-Will. Both papers were based on data gathered in this study, and two additional papers are expected in the next year.

Together, the team mapped the incidence of violent crime against common public transportation routes through Baltimore. The team showed that students who have to walk in areas with higher violent-crime rates are more likely to miss more school than classmates who enjoy safer commutes. On average, kids with more dangerous commutes miss an additional full day more each year than their classmates. While it may not sound like much, the researchers say it is statistically significant. And, based on his conservative research methods, Stein suspects that numbers are higher.

While the correlation is clear, what is less so, says Stein, is what to do to improve the situation. He says yellow buses are logistically challenging in the era of school choice. Getting every kid to school virtually anywhere in the city they choose to attend would be prohibitively expensive. In that context, public transit is not an unreasonable solution to the transportation problem, but the various stakeholders—policymakers, school district administrators, parents, and even the kids themselves—are left with some hard questions.

“You could mandate zoned high schools, for example,” Stein says, “but then you’re giving up on the potential positive benefits of valid choice.”

In this regard, Baltimore is not unique, he adds, and whatever solutions are found could be applied in other cities across the country facing similar challenges. In fact, Stein was on his way to Philadelphia to discuss the implications of his research with district administrators there.

The commute has to become part of the kids’ school choice decision-making process. It’s one thing to choose your school on a Tuesday afternoon in June, Stein says. It is entirely another to make a daily commute starting at 6 a.m. in February when it’s sleeting.

“We’re trying to figure out if there are ways that we can help kids get a richer concept of what the trip may actually entail,” Stein says.