A bill on California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk aims to better regulate an increasingly popular way for some kids to get to school and after-school activities: ride-hailing companies like HopSkipDrive, Zum and Kiddie Commute.
Senate Bill 88, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, would require all drivers to take a tuberculosis test, pass a medical exam, obtain a first aid certificate and carry a fire extinguisher, among other requirements. Like school bus drivers, in order to offer app-based rides, drivers would also have to keep a daily log sheet and perform pre-trip inspections of vehicle lights, brakes and fluid levels every morning.
Supporters include Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, John Burton Advocates for Youth and several labor groups, including the California Federation of Teachers and the California School Employees Association.
Opponents of SB 88 represent an unusual lineup. Some advocates for foster youth are siding with ride-hailing company representatives. The current version of the bill is opposed by HopSkipDrive, dozens of smaller school districts, the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, Los Angeles County’s court-appointed special advocates and the California Youth Connection, an group led by foster youth. They’re urging the governor not to sign the bill.
Opponents say the app-based rides already meet basic safety standards. They also argue that the additional regulation — such as regular drug-testing — will make it harder to recruit drivers at a time when school districts are struggling to hire enough bus drivers. They say companies such as HopSkipDrive are already regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, which requires drivers to pass criminal background checks and consent to regular vehicular monitoring.
SB 88 opponents say app-based ride services — which allow caregivers and child welfare agencies to coordinate last-minute rides — have been essential for hundreds of California children without family support, and they fear the company will dial back these rides if stricter terms are imposed by the state.
Riverside County’s Office of Education, for example, paid for 420 HopSkipDrive rides for foster youth last year, according to a report by local education officials earlier this year. The car service was used to reduce “the barrier of transport” for young people unable to take a city bus or to get rides from caregivers. Los Angeles County, which first began using the service in 2017 to meet the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, is among 10 California county child welfare agencies that use the company to transport foster youth to school and court-ordered family visits.
“Youth in the system, we’ve already been taken away from our families and when we move schools, we lose connections to friends, teachers and the people that we’ve built relationships with,” said 19-year-old Ana Sosa, a Los Angeles County foster youth who is among those opposing SB 88 and its greater regulations.
Sosa said for two years prior to the pandemic, she relied on HopSkipDrive to get to high school. When on-campus classes began again, her caregiver was unable to take her to school, and the car service protected her from what would have been a 2.5-hour ride each way on two buses and a train. She also said the ride service allowed her to remain at the school of her choice, surrounded by friends.
A letter sent to Gov. Newsom by eight organizations, including the Pasadena-based All Saints Church Foster Care Project and the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, agreed with Sosa.
“While we are supportive of SB 88’s underlying intent — guaranteeing safe school transport for all students — this legislation may inadvertently generate more challenges for the vulnerable population we serve,” the letter reads.
SB 88 proponents understand such needs, but say such students also have a right to more robust safety measures — particularly given that taxpayer funding is being used for the rides.
“We believe that all kids deserve transportation that meets those minimum state safety standards, regardless of where they’re coming from or what their background is, or if it’s a student with a disability or a student who’s in foster care,” said David Schapira, spokesperson for the California School Employees Association. SB 88 supporters also argue that companies like HopSkipDive can afford to meet the new state standard, without cutting back service. Since the Los Angeles-based company’s founding in 2014, it now operates in 14 states and Washington D.C., providing 3 million rides to more than 400 school districts. HopSkipDrive has raised more than $100 million from venture capitalists, and could now be worth up to $500 million, the website Crunchbase speculates.
The company spent $40,000 lobbying the California Public Utilities Commission against passage of SB 88 this year, according to disclosures required by the state.
Schapira, whose trade group represents bus drivers and other school employees, said HopSkipDrive and companies like it can afford the new requirements. “Those companies are making huge profits,” he said. “If having to hire drivers who meet safety standards means they have to pay the drivers a little bit better, then they’re going to have to decide whether it’s worth it to cover some of the costs of safety in their bottom line.”
By federal law, schools in California must provide transportation to foster youth, students with disabilities and homeless students. In recent years, school districts have increasingly opted for ride-hailing companies that specialize in transporting children to meet that need. Demand for the service has also been driven by a shortage of school bus drivers.
Last year’s state budget allocated $637 million to public school transportation, an investment prompted by poor performance to date on delivering kids to school. According to the most recent National Household Travel Survey by the Federal Highway Administration, just 9% of children in California take the bus to school.
If SB 88 is signed into law by the Oct. 15 deadline, some of HopSkipDrive’s current requirements for drivers would meet the new state standard. But the company and others like it would also have to ensure drivers had medical examinations, a TB test and enhanced monitoring for drug and alcohol use by drivers.
HopSkipDrive CEO Joanna McFarland said in an interview that the company already has important safety measures in place. Drivers for the company must demonstrate five years of caregiving experience, though being a parent usually suffices, she said. They must go through a “15-point certification process” that includes fingerprinting, background checks, driving inspections and training on how to work with students with special needs and those who have experienced trauma. Additionally, McFarland said, the company has a real-time monitoring system that tracks each car on the way to school, alerting representatives about dangerous driving or a flat tire.
McFarland said these stringent requirements could decrease the pool of potential drivers in some markets, and make it more difficult for the company to fulfill last-minute requests.
California is not the only state that has grappled with how to regulate increasingly popular ride-hailing services for children. In 2022, Colorado passed a law that requires such companies to meet additional safety regulations like first-aid training and a medical exam in order to fulfill school contracts but also allowed app-based drivers to be regulated by a public utilities commission. Similar legislation was introduced in Kansas and Missouri.
An earlier version of California’s SB 88 would have also imposed new safety standards on school employees, social workers, group home employees and caregivers who transport foster youth. That version of the bill was strongly opposed by attorneys, advocates and some large school districts, and was later amended. Other provisions such as requiring drivers to be mandated reporters were also removed.