Credit: Julie Leopo / EdSource
Paradise Elementary was one of nearly 19,000 structures destroyed in the November 2018 Camp Fire.

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.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Vanessa Carter 6 months ago6 months ago

    Great piece. Thank you for highlighting the connection between infrastructure investment and curriculum development as an equity issue so that the users of these public buildings and grounds are fluent in their climate and health benefits. It’s all connected! THAT’s how we cultivate the next generation of leaders, voters, and participants in the pursuit of climate justice.

  2. Lucy Garcia 6 months ago6 months ago

    The idea of greening the schools in a coordinated and conscious manner is crucial in the next few months. May I suggest another key for schools in our underserved neighborhoods? Shade trees and native shrubs in rows enough to provide shade on playgrounds, and mind-clearing greenspace for every child will not only save money on nursing issues and absenteeism, but will help close the achievement gap. Greenspace accessible to children is protective as the … Read More

    The idea of greening the schools in a coordinated and conscious manner is crucial in the next few months. May I suggest another key for schools in our underserved neighborhoods? Shade trees and native shrubs in rows enough to provide shade on playgrounds, and mind-clearing greenspace for every child will not only save money on nursing issues and absenteeism, but will help close the achievement gap. Greenspace accessible to children is protective as the outdoors heats up, a point of simple justice.

  3. Amity Sandage 6 months ago6 months ago

    Our County Office of Education is fortunate to work with district leaders ready to tackle these challenges, but a clear vision and an action plan from the state is urgently needed to ensure our efforts are sustainable, equitable and well-coordinated. Thank you for this important piece.

  4. William Wong 6 months ago6 months ago

    A very important commentary and I wholeheartedly agree with Klein and Patel. CA can and should be a leader in moving this forward, and the upcoming Governor’s budget can be a great opportunity to match dollars, resources, and human capital to get this going. Our K-12 educators are juggling an extraordinary amount of responsibilities right now, so they will need an all hands on deck approach and support.

  5. Liz Alter 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thoughtfully articulated – I agree CA schools can and should be at the forefront of climate resilience in our state. We desperately need an overarching plan that makes schools safer for the future, develops curriculum for all ages about climate and energy, and ensures that school infrastructure is both climate-ready and carbon neutral.

  6. Andra Yeghoian 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you to Klein and Patel for this urgent call to action! County Offices of Education (COE) that have already launched comprehensive sustainability and environmental literacy initiatives, have been able to accelerate transformative change in their regions. A strategic partnership between the state and these COE leaders to develop and implement whole school sustainability and climate resiliency integration, will further systemic progress towards providing equitable access to safe and healthy spaces for learning and play, … Read More

    Thank you to Klein and Patel for this urgent call to action! County Offices of Education (COE) that have already launched comprehensive sustainability and environmental literacy initiatives, have been able to accelerate transformative change in their regions. A strategic partnership between the state and these COE leaders to develop and implement whole school sustainability and climate resiliency integration, will further systemic progress towards providing equitable access to safe and healthy spaces for learning and play, as well as graduating students who are better prepared for green college and career pathways.

  7. Jay Greenlinger, Ed.D. 6 months ago6 months ago

    This is a very important topic for the future of our students, our state, our economy, etc. Along with climate resilient infrastructure such as efficient HVAC powered by renewable energy sources, California can also invest in outdoor learning environments. Part of the master plan you mention must include a combination of indoor and outdoor learning spaces. Thank you for concisely stating such an intricate and important topic.

  8. Sean McPhetridge 6 months ago6 months ago

    I couldn't agree more with Klein and Patel. What we have here is an unprecedented opportunity to use funding for the physical, financial, and environmental health of our local school systems. This is a moment of punctuated equilibrium where legislators must realize they can help all districts do what we can do (but previously have been unable to afford) to help with the triple bottom line of investment for sustainability. Whether it be HVAC systems, … Read More

    I couldn’t agree more with Klein and Patel. What we have here is an unprecedented opportunity to use funding for the physical, financial, and environmental health of our local school systems. This is a moment of punctuated equilibrium where legislators must realize they can help all districts do what we can do (but previously have been unable to afford) to help with the triple bottom line of investment for sustainability. Whether it be HVAC systems, water filtration, solar power generation, or environmental literacy curricula, legislators and state leaders should fund what would be good for our people, our planet, and our prosperity. Thanks to Klein and Patel for saying what needs to be said, urging us to turn budget windfalls into prioritized investments in our health and sustainability.

  9. Karen Cowe 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for this timely and urgent article. I’m especially interested in what you wrote about greening school grounds because we know that removing asphalt and adding substantial tree canopy can reduce urban heat island effects and can directly protect vulnerable children from the increasing temperatures that are predicted in the next decade. This type of ecological design solution also offers key benefits for hands-on learning and ecological literacy, as well as mental and physical … Read More

    Thank you for this timely and urgent article.

    I’m especially interested in what you wrote about greening school grounds because we know that removing asphalt and adding substantial tree canopy can reduce urban heat island effects and can directly protect vulnerable children from the increasing temperatures that are predicted in the next decade. This type of ecological design solution also offers key benefits for hands-on learning and ecological literacy, as well as mental and physical health for children and school staff.

    The decisions our education institutions in California make about how they manage their land, their buildings, and their operations matter. The education sector has a huge impact on the environment when you consider energy consumption, waste generation, water consumption, and transportation. It’s an enormous missed opportunity not to focus on this sector when considering issues that relate to clean air and water, a safe climate, healthy and just communities for all, and thriving natural systems.

  10. Dr. Tony Knight 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for this article. I am recently retired as superintendent of the Oak Park USD in Ventura County. In 2017, the OPUSD Board voted to expend $6.8 million in bond funds to install U.S.-made solar panels at all of our school sites. This has proved to save the District over $500,000 per year in utility costs, more than initially projected due to skyrocketing electric expenses. I have advocated in the past that the state … Read More

    Thank you for this article. I am recently retired as superintendent of the Oak Park USD in Ventura County. In 2017, the OPUSD Board voted to expend $6.8 million in bond funds to install U.S.-made solar panels at all of our school sites. This has proved to save the District over $500,000 per year in utility costs, more than initially projected due to skyrocketing electric expenses.

    I have advocated in the past that the state should be providing these funds either in the form of grants, no-interest loans, or a combination of both that districts can repay over many years. Many districts without available cash in their bond funds choose various types of leases or Power Purchase Agreements that do not provide districts with substantial savings. All of these are through private for-profit firms.

    It’s time the state gets involved and invests in all public schools to allow them to go solar, which will save significant dollars from the districts’ general funds, which can be used to support teachers and students and help California meet its ambitious climate goals while modeling the future of green energy for our students.

  11. Michael Downs 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for this timely and compelling argument for bold state leadership at the intersection of climate disruption, school infrastructure, education, and equity. As a high school administrator supporting young climate activist and raising children vulnerable to climate disruption, I join the chorus of California school leaders supporting the vision and proposals put forward in this article.