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Transportation for autism students shouldn’t be this hard

Image by Darryl Leja, NHGRI.

As Arizona’s first and only autism-focused public charter school, we’ve encountered many unnecessary and bureaucratic obstacles throughout the years that prevent students from receiving the service that best meet their needs.  Our school serves as a lifeline for students who weren’t receiving the level of attention, specialized services and high-quality education they deserve. About 80% of our students are on the autism spectrum with nearly all of our other students also having some sort of developmental disability such as a speech/language impairment, emotional disability and ADHD. Given the specialized education and services we provide, our school draws students from all parts of Maricopa County and even into Pinal County. 

Diana Diaz-Harrison

The lack of transportation options has proven to be a barrier for many of our currently attending families and families who want to attend our school. Currently, about 30% of families make long commutes ranging from thirty minutes to more than an hour each way. The costs associated with establishing a formal transportation system are overwhelming, but targeted investments made by the Arizona Legislature through the Arizona Transportation Modernization Grant will allow Arizona Autism Charter Schools to create a transportation system for students spanning all across the Valley of the Sun. 

Our transportation program, in partnership with Kid Commute who specializes in transporting children with special needs, will consist of purchasing vehicles and creating shuttle stops at strategic locations where there is a high concentration of students to transport as a group. 

However, antiquated Arizona laws prohibit schools from utilizing vehicles that are designed for 11-15 passengers without complying with all of the bureaucracy of school bus requirements. The traditional 80 passenger school bus requires a driver with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), which is a model that doesn’t work for our school given the difficulty finding drivers with CDLs and the smaller vehicles we are deploying. 

We all want student transportation to be safe for kids, but there are ways we can do that without restricting viable transportation options for families. 

Luckily, Sen. Kerr has introduced legislation that would provide more options for schools to meet student transportation needs. This legislation is way overdue. It provides flexibility in vehicle options for schools to transport students allowing for potentially lower cost options, flexibility in recruiting drivers by not requiring a CDLs and gives schools the tools they need to implement micro-transit solutions without compromising student safety. 

We aren’t the only public school facing these unnecessary obstacles. Many of my colleagues throughout the state have expressed similar concerns about barriers and hurdles they are experiencing in transporting children. Many of those concerns are connected to the allowable vehicles that schools can use, and how schools are basically limited to the traditional 80 passenger yellow school bus. 

State leaders should provide schools with as many options as possible to safely transport students to the school that works best for them. This includes allowing schools to utilize vehicles that are smaller for micro-transit options to a pocket of targeted students. 

Our goal at Arizona Autism Charter Schools is to support and serve as many students as possible. We need the state to help us in this effort and provide schools with the tools and flexibilities to develop new, innovative approaches to K-12 student transportation.  

Diana Diaz-Harrison, M.Ed., is the Founder and Executive Director of Arizona Autism Charter Schools, Inc.

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