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Going Green: K-12 Schools as Models of Sustainability

As K-12 schools seek innovative ways to meet students’ needs amid the pandemic and shift to remote learning, a new initiative points to public education’s substantial environmental footprint and recommends ways for schools to support environmental sustainability. A new report from the Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action Initiative examines schools’ striking environmental impact and explores state policies that can help schools embrace sustainable practices—and promote schools’ educational mission in the process. FutureEd Policy Associate Brooke LePage discussed the report’s findings with K12 Climate Action’s Senior Fellow Laura Schifter.

 Why are you focused on K-12 schools? What kind of impact could sustainable school policies have?

 Schools serve nearly one in every six Americans. And with 98,000 schools across the country, they are among the largest consumers of energy for public sector buildings. They also have 480,000 school buses, which is the largest mass transit fleet in the country. So schools have a big environmental footprint.

As a result of COVID, we’ve also learned our schools are not well-equipped to handle disruption, and our communities are not well-equipped to handle schools being unable to open. But we know with the increasing negative impacts related to climate change that our school systems are going to face more and more learning disruptions because of things like hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding. And there's an opportunity to think about and plan how schools need to adapt in preparation for climate change.

There’s also an opportunity for us to think about how we can advance racial equity through this work. We know that communities of color disproportionately bear the brunt of negative impacts of climate change, exposure to air pollution, increased heat, and more. It’s important to make sure we’re prioritizing communities that too often are left out or left behind.

What are some examples of sustainable policies and practices that all schools can adopt?

 One example is food. Our food systems have a large environmental impact in terms of where we get our food from, what we’re serving, and what we do with what we don’t eat. Schools serve over 7 billion meals annually. States and districts can adopt policies for more sustainable food use including reimbursements for local food purchasing, programs that encourage schools to purchase more fruits and vegetables to serve in the cafeteria, and policies supporting schools and districts to compost food waste.

Are there any types of sustainability states are doing well? Are there other areas that have room for improvement?

 It’s pretty variable across states. There’s a considerable opportunity for states to think about these things more holistically, to really leverage the potential benefit of any policy that they implement. If you are supporting schools in going toward net zero energy buildings and you’re not talking about it in relation to student learning, you’re missing a big opportunity. The building can provide hands-on learning opportunities for students to learn about energy and consumption. So we’ve got to talk about these things together.

How urgently do districts and schools need to move toward more sustainable practices?

 Most people say we need to address climate change and decarbonize our whole economy by 2050. To do that, we need to start taking steps today, and our education sector can be an essential tool to help us decarbonize by 2050 by preparing the next generation to advance sustainability.

States and districts are facing tight budgets as a result of the pandemic. Are these best practices cost prohibitive?

 There are inexpensive things schools can be doing when schools return to normal operation. Take share tables, where leftover unopened cafeteria food can be picked up and taken home by another student. This helps reduce food waste and can be done at minimal cost. On the other hand, things like transitioning an entire school bus fleet to electric may take years of planning.

There are other creative solutions that reduce costs. Power purchasing agreements, for example, allow third parties to cover the upfront costs for transitioning a school district to solar. The district pays the energy cost over time but it’s less expensive than a traditional energy source.

And if schools are saving money on energy, which is the second highest cost behind salaries, they’re able to spend more money on teaching and learning. Parents, teachers, administrators, and local taxpayers all have a vested interest in this work. We want to make sure that our dollars are being well spent.

Are there other benefits for students?

 These innovations need to be made with students at the center. When you invest in more energy efficient buildings, for example, it can benefit kids’ health and their learning environments. If we’re being thoughtful about making these changes and considering heathy and efficient strategies, they will have the largest benefits for students and educators.

The other major benefit is a next generation of policy leaders, business leaders, and citizens who understand human impact on the environment. Educating people on climate change has been identified as a social tipping point that needs to be activated in order to address it.