It’s understandable that there’s confusion surrounding the what’s and how’s of “alternative student transportation.” We’re hoping to bring some clarity to two of the most confusing models for transporting students who fall outside the general population: student transportation management and TCN (transportation network company).
While both models allow for flexibility, scalability, and cost cutting, there are other, less obvious, things you should know when deciding which model is best for your district. A key differentiating factor between the student transportation management and TNC models is the safety standard each is subject to when transporting students.
Student transportation, in general, is regulated by your State’s Department of Education (DOE). The DOE determines the requirements for drivers and vehicles, and sets a standard that companies and districts transporting students must follow to ensure safety for the students and to protect the district.
Student transportation management companies are regulated by the DOE (same as school districts). TNCs are not. Instead, TNCs are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), State Department of Transportation (DOT), the Division of Licensing and Regulation (DLR), or the equivalent in your state (applicable governing entity) – regulatory bodies that are not focused on the specific needs or safety issues of students and school districts. The DOE has no regulatory control or oversight on TCNs, so they are not required to adhere to any rules or requirements set forth by the DOE. While they can choose to follow the DOE’s rules/requirements/regulations, there are no checks and balances to ensure they actually are. In addition, the applicable governing entity has no authority over student transportation practices which means they don’t have any applicable regulations to enforce compliance with student transportation practices.
Drivers & Service Providers
Employment laws vary in each state, however the federal government’s definition of an independent contractor states: “an individual is an independent contractor if the payer [in this case the transportation company] has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done.”
Student transportation management companies can hire their own drivers or work with service providers (smaller companies) who hire drivers. These drivers are employees of either the management company or the service provider and are, therefore, given set schedules with consistent routes. They can be held to certain performance standards, including scheduling requirements, and replaced if those standards aren’t met.
In contrast, TNCs work with independent contractor drivers. As outlined above, independent contractors can set their own hours, determine their own standards, and do the work however they see fit as long as it gets done. This means that a student may have one driver in the morning and another in the afternoon. Those drivers may vary daily as well. This disrupts a student’s ability to depend on routine and consistency and can have an increasingly negative effect on their day.
To put this in simpler terms – as long as the student makes it to school, the independent contractor did what they were hired to do. For example, if a student needs a buckle guard because they tend to undo their seatbelt while the vehicle is in motion, an independent contactor may not know how to operate it because of the training that was provided or may not even have a working buckle guard in their vehicle. If other restrictions are placed upon the independent contractor, the TNC runs the risk of violating employment laws and put themselves (and consequently the district) at risk of co-employment lawsuits.
Additionally, TNCs have no standardized training, especially as it pertains to route driving and standardized student transportation practices. In comparison, the DOE typically has stringent requirements regarding the proper use and maintenance of child safety restraint systems, proper wheelchair securement, and may even require that drivers pass a driving performance and/or written test.
Keeping It Local
When transporting students for any district, companies who provide large capacity school buses are most often required to have a local presence. They have a place to store buses and run their dispatch and customer service operations.
While neither TNCs or student transportation management companies are typically required to have local offices, often you will find that the management company will have an office located within a short distance to the district. From this office, they will interview service providers, conduct vehicle inspection, supply necessary equipment for specific trips, ensure compliance with district requirements, and a host of other tasks.
They also meet with parents, school and district officials, are present in case of accidents/incidents or anything else that may arise during the day. TNCs, however, typically run all of their operations from one location. They may never meet the independent contractor driver that transports your student(s) to/from school every day, or see their vehicle in person. They rely on the paperwork.
Drug & Alcohol Testing
In general, TNCs utilize what’s called a “zero tolerance” policy. In summary, that means that if an independent contracted driver is found to have have been driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, they can be removed and no longer allowed to provide services for the TNC. Independent contracted drivers are not required to submit to pre-employment, post-accident, reasonable suspicion, or random drug/alcohol testing.
In contrast, student transportation management companies are often required to follow essentially the same regulations as school bus drivers when it comes to drug and alcohol testing. Drivers are enrolled in drug consortiums and are subject to pre-employment, post-accident, reasonable suspicion, and random drug testing. If a driver fails, or is found to have been driving under the influence, whether they had a student in the vehicle or not, that driver is no longer permitted to provide services for the student transportation management company.
Meeting The Standards
Student transportation is different than simply transporting children. The need for safety standards, driver training, and oversight of who is showing up to transport your students is different than what a TNC was established (and is regulated) to provide. There are certain requirements that must be met in order for any vehicle or driver to be considered compliance to transport students. When determining what’s right for your district, please be sure you know what you will be held responsible for and choose the partner who won’t let you down.