Climate Change

Federal Investments in Infrastructure and Climate Change Can Help Schools Take Action

January 7, 2022  • Emily Katz

President Biden’s agenda has a strong focus on climate change. He has constantly reiterated the need to take a whole-of-government approach to address the crisis. In November, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—the first step toward this vision. Policies from the law will help schools take climate action.

As one of the largest public sectors, schools have a substantial carbon footprint yet, at all levels of government, they are often left out of large-scale efforts to address climate change. With K12 Climate Action, we have learned about people on the ground doing the hard work to advance climate action in their local schools. With the IIJA, these local leaders—from students to school staff—will be supported in their efforts. Specifically, provisions in the law can help schools transition to clean energy and electric school buses to mitigate their carbon footprints, increase broadband access to build resilience to climate impacts, and ensure students have clean water to drink.

Sustainable School Infrastructure and Clean Energy

Buildings are a leading source of carbon emissions, and with 98,000 public schools, the education sector has a significant carbon footprint. Schools spend an estimated total of $8 billion annually on energy costs—the second-largest expense for districts. Improving energy efficiency and using clean energy in schools can help save money on operating costs while reducing carbon emissions.

Sustainability officer Tim Cole shared that his district, Virginia Beach City Public Schools, defines sustainability as “the triple bottom line, trying to balance social, economic, and environmental outcomes.” This approach has helped the district construct over 1.6 million square feet of LEED building space, including multiple LEED-certified elementary schools. In addition to reducing emissions and supporting student health, Cole sees schools as inspirational spaces that can prepare students for a more sustainable future. “We’re developing these future innovative leaders, and if they don’t see physical examples of this, how can they be the innovators we want them to be?”

Even though these investments will save schools money over time, districts need support with the upfront costs to transition to sustainable school buildings. IIJA will provide $500 million in funding that can help schools utilize clean energy and sustainable infrastructure through the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Grant Program for public schools. The program is also designed to improve equity by prioritizing schools that serve low-income communities and those with the greatest need for repairs.

Electric School Buses and Sustainable Transportation

Our public schools operate the largest mass transit fleet in the country, with 480,000 predominantly diesel school buses that drive a total of 3.45 billion miles per year. Transitioning to electric school buses eliminates carbon emissions, which benefits the environment as well as student health and learning.

Stockton Unified School District (SUSD) has increasingly prioritized reducing carbon emissions and is a leader in the transition to electric school buses. In under a year, the district used combined funding streams to construct charging stations and acquire its first set of electric buses. SUSD energy specialist, Gil Rosas, explained that Stockton is in a disadvantaged community where environmental justice is necessary, and reducing emissions through electric buses “benefits children directly every single day.”

Improving energy efficiency and using clean energy in schools can help save money on operating costs while reducing carbon emissions.

IIJA will make electric school buses accessible to many more districts. The Clean School Bus Program provides $5 billion to help schools purchase electric buses and install charging infrastructure. Other provisions that are designed to reduce carbon emissions from transportation more generally can also be used to help schools transition to electric school buses.

Increasing Broadband Access

Climate change is causing more frequent and severe weather, from wildfires to flooding to hurricanes. Extreme weather events often cause schools to close, which disrupts student learning. By mid-September 2021, over 1 million students had already missed school due to extreme weather this school year. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, internet access is crucial to ensure students can continue learning even when school buildings are closed. IIJA includes significant funding to expand broadband access in communities, which can help narrow the digital divide and enable students to participate in remote learning.

These new and expanded programs are an important first step to help schools act on climate change but there is still more to be done. The Build Back Better Act, which is currently stalled in Congress, would provide substantial funding and additional programs to help schools reduce their carbon emissions, build resilience to climate impacts, educate students about climate change, and prepare students for jobs in the clean economy. Critically, Build Back Better would make climate action more financially accessible for schools that are already underfunded due to inequitable funding formulas. Building on IIJA and passing these additional provisions would help millions of students live healthier lives and lead a more sustainable future.

Communities experience the impacts of climate change differently, making action at the state and local levels especially important. We have partnered with the World Resources Institute to develop a resource to help districts understand how IIJA can help them take action on climate: Education and Climate Provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. School districts and communities that make use of newly-available federal funding will be better able to take climate action locally and help to create a more sustainable and equitable future for today’s students.

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