One of the most recognisable icons in America are the yellow school buses that take millions of students to and from school each day. If we had anything similar in England it’s estimated that it would reduce traffic congestion in cities by 10% during peak hour, saving the economy billions. Will we ever? Unlikely, unless an accident wiped out the entire coalition and Labour front benches, leaving just Vince Cable MP in charge.
There have been no yellow buses operating in New York for a month because many of their drivers and matrons (aides to help disabled children) have been on strike. It’s the first strike in 34 years and it has polarised parents, teachers, politicians and voters. New York’s school buses transport about 150,000 children each day almost one third of who have significant special needs. The total cost to local taxpayers is $1.1bn p.a., about $7,300 per student per annum or $40 per student per day for the 180 school days each year. It’s a sizeable sum and far more on a per-student basis than it costs to run similar programs in other major US cities.
What Mayor Michael Bloomberg is attempting is something no other political administration has dared to tackle for thirty years, to open up the school bus market to real market competition. In a nation that prides itself on free markets this may seem an anomaly but it’s something neither the former Mayor Rudolph Gulliani nor his schools chancellor Joel Klein (now running News Corp’s Amplify education business) or their predecessors ever dared attempt.
A proposal to restructure 1100 bus routes for special needs children has been cited as the trigger for the strike. However, the more likely cause is that the Bloomberg administration put two new contracts out to tender without Employee Protection Provision (EPP). EPP protection for school bus drivers, matrons and mechanics came into force in 1979 after the last strike over school transport, which lasted 13 weeks. This strike started when the then schools chancellor (later mayor) Edward Koch (who died last week) ended the monopoly of a company called Varsity who supplied the buses for 2000 bus routes.
In both disputes the union at the centre was Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Having a union involved is hardly surprising, however Local 1181 is hardly your typical workers collective. In 2006 the US Federal government and FBI brought RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act) charges against senior members of the Local 1181 who, according to prosecutors, were closely linked to the Genovese crime family.
However, it’s not just the unions who seem straight from central casting. On the business side you have people like Dominic Gatto, a Vietnam veteran and CEO Atlantic Express, one of the biggest school bus companies (supplying about 25% of all NY’s buses). Aside from admitting to paying bribes to Local 1181 union officials, including imprisoned former boss Salvatore Battaglia, Gatto is also currently an ‘employer trustee (of Local 1181’s) health, pension, and welfare funds’. According to the New York Times, during a 2010 meeting with education department officials to discuss contract extensions, Gatto pulled a pistol from his briefcase and was charged with menacing, harassment and reckless endangerment. Gatto was released without bail and is believed to have only had to pay an administrative penalty. While Gatto had the necessary licence to own and carry the pistol, why he felt compelled to bring one to a meeting with education bureaucrats (let alone to produce it) is unclear.
There is also a direct UK connection to the New York strike via listed UK company First Group plc whose subsidiary First Student is one of the biggest players in the US school bus market (including New York) transporting six million students every day on their 54,000 buses and employing 51,000 people (many of whom in New York are members of Local 1181). Given how high profile First Group is on the London Stock Exchange, it seems odd that they haven’t bothered to mention it to investors.
Most students are still getting to school (attendance by special needs students has fallen) with the city reimbursing parents for public transport charges, the use of personal vehicles, taxis and even limousine services. So far the strike has saved the city $33m in payments to bus companies with Mayor Bloomberg quipping, ‘Actually (the strike) is saving us money, because the cost of the busing is so out of hand, that it’s cheaper to send everybody by taxi’!
What is the relevance of the New York bus strike to UK education?
As an outsider, it seems to me that America has been trying to implement more radical educational reforms than almost anywhere in the world. While many will disagree with me, I have been watching some of the battles in US education, ranging from charter schools to MOOCs for almost 20 years. While many of the changes have been messy, with some succeeding and others failing, at least there is a preparedness to make tough decisions and to take risks, that seems sadly lacking in the UK. Take charter schools for example, when they first emerged I had friends who taught at Edison schools in California. Every one hated the company and their educational ethos, and the result was that Edison almost single-handedly killed off the nascent charter school movement. However, rather than give up, some states and school districts persevered and what emerged were world-leading chains of schools like Rocketship Education and KIPP (Knowledge is Power), supported by innovative funders like Charter School Growth Fund and companies like DreamBox Learning. It isn’t just charter schools, its changing teacher training with programmes like Teach for America (copied in the UK as Teach First) and really looking at how technology might drive innovation and change. US edtech isn’t like the UK, where we have tried to pick winners and steer the market via things like eLearning credits, BBC jam, BECTA and their lists of prefererd VLEs, interactive whiteboards, etc. In the US not only are investors far more prepared to back interesting edtech companies, the Federal government and some states are also trying to work with the industry by seed funding projects in areas like assessment, adaptive learning and big data. While not everything in works (e.g. the rise and fall of for-profit online schools like K12 Inc), but the strong investor support for companies like Edmodo, 2U, Learn Sprout, Udacity, Coursera and many others, shows just how far behind the UK risks falling.
An unusual but key difference between the US and UK, is that in the US’s most radical educational change has been driven by disaster (both physical and economic). In 2005 when hurricane Katrina almost destroyed New Orleans, former Louisiana State Superintendent of Education, Paul Pastorek, created the Recovery School District with 107 failing schools. Today 40,000 students are educated at these mostly charter schools, with almost one third of teachers coming from Teach for America. Similarly in 2010 when Hanna Skandera took up her job as Public Secretary of Education in New Mexico, in her first week she was told that her budget had been cut by 25%! Skandera and Pastorek had to make hard choices, the magnitude of which UK educators and politicians simply can’t imagine. No doubt they got some things right and others wrong, but what they didn’t do was get mired by the institutionaland political inertia that sees us endlessly debating academies versus free schools, SATs and league tables, and other minor changes to the status quo.
Coming back to yellow school buses, Mayor Bloomberg, has described the current dispute as being ‘about job guarantees that the union just can’t have’. I just wish we had a similar national school transport program, but it would take more than a natural or political disaster to see it happen.