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Opinion: Schools can help us build back better and address climate change

America’s public schools have enormous energy, infrastructure and transportation needs, which make them an essential component of any plan to improve the nation’s overall infrastructure. Yet the role schools can play — both in economic recovery and in addressing climate change — is often overlooked.

Our public-school system — with more than 98,000 schools covering over 2 million acres of land across the country — recently received a D+ on America’s infrastructure report card. More than half of our school districts have multiple failing building systems, according to a recent government report.

Underinvestment in school infrastructure in Michigan led to a roof collapse at a high school, fortunately happening overnight when no students or educators were in the building. Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other students of color are more likely to attend underfunded schools in bad condition; their schools have to spend a greater share of their budgets on annual maintenance than well-resourced schools and find it more challenging to raise the funds needed for sufficient capital improvements. These same schools are more likely to experience poor indoor air quality, environmental hazards and other infrastructure issues detrimental to student health, attendance and test scores.

Yet this current underinvestment in school infrastructure presents an opportunity. Increased investment can help decarbonize our schools, lower annual energy and operations costs, improve health, safety and learning outcomes and provide opportunities for students to develop the skills needed to advance a sustainable future. Additionally, this investment will create living labs for environmental sustainability, clean energy and climate solutions.

Energy costs are schools’ second-highest costs, behind salaries, and schools are among the largest consumers of energy in the public sector. With 480,000 school buses, mostly diesel, public schools operate the largest mass transit fleet in the country. Federal policymakers must be the catalyst for schools’ transition to clean energy and sustainable operations.

The K-12 Climate Action commission co-chaired by former Secretary of Education John B. King and former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, joined by 25 education, environmental, youth-led, philanthropic and civil rights organizations, recently released a set of policy principles outlining how an infrastructure package can center youth in our recovery and support schools in moving toward sustainable operations. They write: “Investments in schools can accelerate the transition to a clean economy, empower youth to access green jobs, and build long-lasting change to advance a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable society.”

The impacts of climate change are increasingly hard to ignore, and the time for a transition to a clean economy is now. In Virginia, Arlington Public Schools built a net zero energy school. Its Discovery Elementary  saves the district enough in annual utility costs to cover the salaries of two beginning teachers, and students have the opportunity to engage in deeper learning with an energy dashboard, solar panels and more. In Maryland, Montgomery County recently announced a deal to transition its entire fleet of 1,422 school buses from diesel to electric by 2035. This move will help eliminate harmful tailpipe emissions and reduce costs associated with fuel and maintenance.

A nationwide transition to sustainable operations makes sense financially, it makes sense for student health, it will help mitigate our impact on the environment and it will create hands-on learning opportunities for students. We need an infrastructure package to ensure that all students and all communities, not just the ones that can afford it, see these benefits. We cannot wait to do this equity-focused work.

If we do not support communities in meeting this moment, the gaps in our society, racial inequities and environmental inequities will only worsen. Conversely, if we invest in under-resourced schools and build healthy sustainable learning environments, we can build community resilience and empower youth to succeed in the new economy.

For too long, adults have not done enough in our fight against climate change; as a result, our young people are increasingly afraid for their futures and are demanding change. As we saw when the pandemic hit and leaders prioritized keeping bars open rather than schools, we too often undervalue our children in our policy priorities.

The American Rescue Plan is a good initial step to demonstrate our country’s commitment to our children and youth, and the just-proposed American Jobs Plan continues this commitment by including school infrastructure. As Congress and the administration negotiate the bill, the infrastructure package must maintain a focus on schools so that this momentum will grow, and we can prioritize building a more sustainable, resilient and equitable future for our youth.

Laura A. Schifter is a senior fellow with the Aspen Institute, leading the K-12 Climate Action initiative, and a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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