Illustration by Vicky Veta
One of the main things Terek Johnson remembers about Benjamin Franklin High School, where he graduated in 2019, is that it was hot. In particular, he remembers his first day of his senior year. It was an unusually warm September, and that day, it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) out. But inside, he swears it was even hotter — and only a few rooms in the building had air conditioning. He had a math class during first period, and math classes were the worst because they were on the particularly brutal third floor.
“I think I actually took my shirt off and was in class wearing a tank top. Everyone was just sweating,” he said. “All the teachers could do was just open a window and continue to teach.”
It got so bad that a few hours into the school day, the city let students at Ben Franklin — and some other schools around the city — out of school early. It wasn’t the first or last time Johnson had seen this happen. Dozens more schools in the city lacked proper air conditioning — many of them still do.
Heat wasn’t the only environmental issue Johnson noticed at Ben Franklin. In the winter, the lack of heat was a problem. There were also moldy spots in the ceiling where water had leaked through, and like most Baltimore City Public Schools, the water pipes were full of lead, so you couldn’t drink from the fountains. During his senior year, Johnson started working with Free Your Voice, the environmental justice organization where he’s on staff as a youth organizer today. Through that work, he also became aware of the pollution from nearby infrastructure, including a highway, two coal-fired power plants, three oil refineries, a chemical manufacturing facility, a coal-shipping terminal, and a trash incinerator — pollution for which his school had no equipment to filter out of the air.
“I really connected to that being a problem, as someone who’s struggled with asthma from when I was child,” he said.
These issues are pervasive in Baltimore and indicative of the state of schools in low-income areas around the nation. Millions of students are exposed to lead and asbestos in their school buildings. A Center for Public Integrity and Center for Investigative Reporting investigation found that one in every 11 public schools fall within 500 feet (152.4 meters) of highways and other roads with significant traffic pollution. A 2020 federal report also found that one-third of public schools across the U.S. have some combination of inadequate heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems — an issue that’s been of particular concern as schools face pressure to reopen but still keep students and staff safe from the spread of covid-19.
These issues disproportionately affect poor communities’ schools and are the results of decades of public disinvestment. Fixing it will require a total environmental overhaul for schools to ensure they’re safe places to learn and work. Such a plan is essential in the fight for environmental justice for students, educators, and staff. Its effects would also reverberate far and wide, creating many co-benefits for communities. Put simply, schools need a Green New Deal.
Across the country, students and teachers are fighting to right wrongs like the ones Johnson experienced. The Baltimore Teachers Union has been fighting for legislation to secure investment in repairs and eliminate lead from school water pipes. (The former recently passed in the Maryland state assembly while the latter is pending approval by the governor.) The union also holds fundraisers for teachers to buy fans and coat drives for kids to wear in class during winter. But Corey Gaber, vice president of the Baltimore Teachers Union’s executive committee and former public schools teacher who has gotten his students involved in legislative environmental justice campaigns, said schools still need far more support.
“You’re talking about places that have been under-invested [in] for decades,” he said. “We are getting $18,000 per student, per year, in our funding formula. A lot of that money is going towards all sorts of other things that private schools are not paying for: students with higher concentrations of poverty, special education needs, English language learners, which are all more expensive to educate.” That doesn’t leave much money for renovations.
Halfway across the country, the Chicago Teachers Union is working on a comprehensive environmental justice proposal that will call for green retrofits and solar panels for all schools, as well as to rid them of toxic materials like asbestos and to hire local community members and older students to work on these remediations. They launched the plan on Earth Day, April 22.
In Philadelphia, where one teacher is tragically dying from mesothelioma last year after exposure to asbestos in the workplace, state Sen. Nikil Saval has laid out a similarly comprehensive plan to give public schools a total environmental makeover, billed a Green New Deal for Public Schools. Its research was led by Akira Drake Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School.
Last month, a team led by Drake Rodriguez released a new federal green proposal for schools. It would begin undoing all of the environmental justice issues in public schools and lowering their climate impact at the same time.
The federal plan was released last month by the climate + community project, a new policy tank, as HuffPost first reported. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a former school principal, has endorsed it and is currently working it into legislation to introduce in the House.
The plan calls for spending $1.16 trillion over the next 10 years on K-12 schools, including $250 billion set aside for deep retrofits to outfit schools with solar panels and batteries, install the latest and most energy-efficient air conditioning and ventilation technologies, and remove toxic pollutants like lead and asbestos.
“Our view is, don’t attack this problem in a kind of patchwork fashion, don’t just do a little bit at a time, but undertake whole-building retrofits,” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who co-founded the climate + community project and co-wrote the proposal. “If you’re going into the walls already to get rid of asbestos or to get rid of mold, why not modernize the school water system while you’re in there to get rid of lead and make it efficient? Or if you’re dealing with a crappy HVAC issue system, why aren’t you putting in heat pumps that will provide both cooling and heating and fully electric systems that can easily be made carbon-free with rooftop solar?”
The $250 billion would be provided through grants specifically be allocated for what the plan calls “schools with the least capacity to fund or finance these retrofits themselves.” This subverts what Aldana Cohen called the “neoliberal green economy,” wherein only affluent schools with disposable capital can afford to become early adopters of clean technologies.
Making these deep retrofits would take a lot of work. The plan estimates doing them properly would create some 100,000 construction and maintenance jobs — jobs that should adhere to the highest labor standards and prioritize local hiring.
Once these retrofits are complete, the plan estimates they could completely decarbonize one-third of schools, delivering an annual reduction of at least 29 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent when accounting for all sources of greenhouse gases. That’s the equivalent of taking 6 million cars off the road.
The ambitious proposal contrasts sharply with the Biden administration’s recent infrastructure bill, which lays out a plan to spend $2.25 trillion for all infrastructural upgrades in the U.S., including roughly $1 trillion on green infrastructure overall. Just $100 billion is set aside in the plan for schools. Drake Rodriguez called Biden’s proposal a “good first step,” but said it’s ultimately insufficient.
“There are 100,000 K-12 schools in the U.S.; $100 billion is not going to get us where we need to go,” she said.
Rodriguez noted that in her home of Philadelphia alone, many schools haven’t seen any renovations since they were built decades ago. City estimates show that it will take $4.5 billion in repairs merely to bring all 200 public schools up to code.
“And that is just to get them to the bare minimum,” she said. “That’s not even getting us to those modern, healthy, innovative school buildings. It’s to say nothing of clean energy. It’s just getting us back to where we were in the 1960s when these buildings were built, which is ... just not enough.”
Eliminating school toxicity would be a huge boon to students’ health and well-being. Free Your Voice’s Johnson, for instance, noted that it was near-impossible to concentrate in school when it was so hot.
“It was just too distracting, especially in the heat if you were in a room talking with a bunch of other teenagers. All that body heat,” he said. “We would try to focus, but to be honest, the main thing I was focusing on was not trying to be hot.”
Amid the climate crisis, extreme temperatures are set to become far more common across the country, creating the conditions for even more early dismissal days and misery — and making it even harder to learn. A 2018 study suggests that daily maximum temperatures increasing just a single degree Fahrenheit (1.8 degrees Celsius) hotter during the school year can result in students’ test scores falling by the equivalent of roughly 1% of a year’s worth of learning — the same effect as being absent for two days. Other research has found that extreme heat is a legacy of segregation, hitting communities that were redlined the hardest.
Heat inside school buildings can also trap pollution from nearby sources, which lowers air quality. That’s a particularly big issue for students with chronic illnesses like asthma, which affects 20% of youth in Baltimore and is a problem disproportionately experienced by low-income people and people of color across the U.S.
“So often, because they’re dealing with asthma and other underlying conditions, there are kids who want to be in school but cannot be for long periods of time,” Gaber said. “We know that attendance is extremely strongly linked to graduation rates. So if you make the air cleaner, regardless of not changing anything else about teaching and learning and pedagogy and curriculum, you will positively impact achievement just by literally improving people’s health.”
Lawrence Brown, a public health scholar and author of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America, said eliminating lead in school paint and pipes could have a similar effect.
“When it comes to lead poisoning’s effects, you’re talking about cognitive impairment and damage to the executive reasoning portion of the brain,” he said. “People’s ability to make reasoned decisions is severely affected especially when we consider that toxic lead exposure can also come with other issues like increased aggressivity, increased impulsivity. People’s ability to regulate their emotions is going to be impacted.”
Researchers have even demonstrated a link between lead poisoning and attention deficit disorder. “It affects people’s ability to focus in class, so then it impacts their academic outcomes [because] you’re less likely to pass or graduate, and you’re more likely to end up in the school to prison pipeline,” said Brown.
Investing in school buildings could also increase low-income schools’ chances of hanging onto top teachers and administrators who may otherwise be looking to move to workplaces with better conditions. It would also increase safety and quality of life for students, staff, and others who spend time in school buildings in their many capacities.
“Schools are so much more than schools,” said Brown. “They’re before and after school sites, they’re … community meeting spaces for all kinds of local groups, in some places they’re polling places for elections.”
Creating environmentally safe, state-of-the-art schools could also have effects far outside the classroom. Schools are generally funded by property taxes, which means wealthy areas with higher tax revenues tend to have more money for upkeep and new construction. That, in turn, locks in a cycle where the area becomes more desirable, pushing home prices higher, and generating more revenue, all of which widens the gap even further between rich and poor, Black and white. But Drake Rodriguez said that bettering schools with federal dollars could increase property values in low-income neighborhoods, helping spur more investments in places that have long been neglected.
“When we invest in the schools, when we make public schools this brilliant piece of public infrastructure and investment and a solid public good, we will see neighborhoods stabilized as a result,” said Drake Rodriguez. “School districts are, for better or worse, tied with property values and neighborhood stabilization, and this is a way of really making sure that neighborhoods have a good chance of surviving.”
Gaber said ridding schools of toxins and outfitting them with new technology could also go a long way in boosting students’ self-worth and motivation.
“If that’s the place you’re supposed to spend all your time and you’re actually mandated — legally mandated—to be in this environment, it says a lot about how much society cares about you,” he said.
That jibed with Johnson’s experience as a student: “It kind of wears you down when the first thing you think when you walk into school is, I hope I’m late enough that I already missed my math class on the third floor … because it’s got to be just so hot up there right now,” he said. “A lot of us already had a lot of pollution and crime and all that going on at home in our neighborhoods. It would be a lot better if at least school was safe and comfortable.”