After several years of ongoing disruption from the Covid pandemic, wildfires and heat waves, California’s 6 million students and their parents know firsthand that far too many school buildings are not equipped to address our present challenges.
This is especially true for Black and brown children who face disproportionate climate change impacts and are more likely to attend school buildings in poor condition. With “hot school days” responsible for an estimated 5% of the racial achievement gap, one wonders how Gov. Gavin Newsom’s program to extend the school year deeper into the summer will cope with inequitable access to air-conditioning.
Leading superintendents across the country are delivering the message that our school infrastructure and our learning agenda must urgently address the climate crisis. For the first time, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona identified climate change as a threat to his department’s mission.
State leadership must respond by articulating a vision for how we ensure every school performs its most critical function — to provide safe and inspirational spaces for children to learn without disruption. A vision for California’s public school infrastructure in the form of a master plan or a road map such as that for early education and child care can align funding streams to address extreme weather impacts and with the state’s goal of carbon neutrality. A master plan, for example, would guide all districts to eliminate fossil fuels as they undertake facilities projects while also installing on-site solar energy and energy storage systems and transitioning to electric school buses. It would also help county offices of education develop curriculums that would incorporate these clean energy investments as hands-on learning opportunities.
This month, the governor and Legislature can galvanize immediate action by leveraging a projected $9 billion in one-time state funds for K-12 in the 2022-2023 budget year. Investing in school buildings and grounds responds to concerns about sustaining ongoing efforts with one-time money. Investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy will generate a stream of recurring savings that can be reinvested in core programs for students — all while improving health and learning outcomes now.
What is at stake more broadly is how we leverage $25 billion of one-time funding for K-12, including $15.3 billion from the American Rescue Plan, as well as funding opportunities on the horizon like a potential $12 billion statewide school construction bond and cap-and-trade proceeds which have totaled $15.8 billion since 2013.
If district leaders, school boards and state actors like the California Air Resources Board, the California School Finance Authority, the California Department of Education, and the Division of the State Architect shared a 2030 vision for California’s schools, they could be working together to align investment decisions across all available funding and make them easy for school districts to access.
Conversely, without leadership and a clear vision, we risk making scattered, poor investments with current resources. California spends more than $15 billion every year on building, maintaining and operating its school facilities without a master plan for carbon neutrality and climate resilience.
Districts are already deploying Covid relief funds on facilities and grounds. As of September, the California Department of Education had approved over 1,200 requests for capital expenditure with over $400 million targeted for heating, ventilation and air conditioning, classroom updates and outdoor structures. HVAC systems tend to be energy-intensive, so it is critical to combine these upgrades with investments in resilience by introducing solar microgrids. We cannot allow schools to miss this opportunity to address today’s urgent, pandemic-driven HVAC needs in alignment with a longer-term vision for healthy, resilient, efficient schools.
Moreover, state leaders’ plan should target investments in public school infrastructure in areas that are identified as being exposed to higher air pollution and where worsening heat and poor air quality days expose children and teachers to asthma, bronchitis, or cardiovascular disease. And as we transition to clean energy, removing natural gas appliances within schools is important for student and teacher safety, meeting California’s carbon reduction goals and ensuring clean indoor air for students.
With several significant one-time funding opportunities, California can launch an ambitious statewide approach to building healthy, resilient schools. We can’t unsee our lack of preparedness for this pandemic and the wildfires that ravage our state. But we can use our new eyes to care for and educate our kids amid the uncertainty of the decades ahead.
Jonathan Klein is co-founder of UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit working to support America’s K-12 public schools to make an equitable transition to zero carbon emissions while preparing our youth to build a sustainable future in a rapidly changing climate.
Lisa Patel is a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford Climate, Health, and Equity Task Force at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. Views expressed are her own and do not represent the views of her employer.
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