FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 25, 2023
Educators, students, health professionals, and labor advocates call for Governor Newsom and legislature to create first-of-a-kind master plan for climate-resilient schools
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (August 25, 2023)—Millions of California school children are returning to classrooms this month that lack essential infrastructure to safeguard student health and learning in the face of increasingly extreme weather and a rapidly changing climate. In a bid to equitably direct state resources towards urgently needed clean energy upgrades, over 700 educators, 169 health professionals, over 60 students, labor advocates, and 35 organizations submitted letters yesterday urging California Gov. Gavin Newsom to support SB 394 (Gonzalez), which would create a master plan for sustainable and climate-resilient schools.
“Climate change is a health emergency for California’s children. More extreme heat and more wildfire smoke impact both child health and child learning. Schools also have enormous potential to keep our kids and communities protected from climate change, using cost-effective technology that is available right now. The time to plan—and to start acting on those plans—is now,” said Dr. Michael Harris, a general pediatrician and member of Climate Health Now.
California spends $15 billion every year on building, modernizing, maintaining, and operating its school facilities, but due to a misalignment between the state’s climate resiliency targets and its school policy, this funding can still go to outdated fossil fuel equipment that pollutes air quality and fuels climate change. If approved, SB 394 would support state agencies in ensuring schools are equitably upgraded with clean energy technologies like heat pumps, which can keep students safer and healthier during heat waves and wildfires by providing efficient cooling and air filtration.
In addition to aligning existing state spending, the master plan will expand California’s resources for school updates by ensuring schools take advantage of new incentives in the federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for solar, energy storage, and heat pumps—money that California might otherwise leave on the table. If just 100 California schools take advantage of this funding, the IRA could deliver $400 million in clean energy investments to the state.
“California’s school buildings should be part of the solution to reaching our statewide emissions targets, rather than contributing to the problem by continuing to burn more fossil fuels. We’re asking the legislature and Governor Newsom to step up and safeguard our futures by investing in our schools now,” said Bella Santos, recent San Diego high school graduate and first year student at UC Berkeley.
Recent studies have found tremendous inequities across California communities in their access to healthy, modern school facilities. Children of color, low-income children, and children living in rural communities are more likely to attend schools with inadequate infrastructure. In fact, a full 5% of the gap in test scores between Black and Hispanic students and their White classmates can be attributed to disproportionate exposure to extreme heat in classrooms.
A master plan for climate-resilient schools will help California equitably upgrade school buildings to improve the health and safety of classrooms, which will in turn improve student outcomes. Research links qualities of a school’s built environment, such as moderate indoor temperatures and properly filtered air, to improved student engagement, concentration, and performance. Electric HVAC systems with advanced filtration can increase students’ strategic thinking and information processing by 300%, according to a study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“No student should have to learn in classrooms where temperatures exceed 90 degrees, and teachers and classified professionals shouldn’t have to teach and work in these conditions. We need a plan for how California is going to equitably improve the health of its classrooms,” said Jeff Freitas, former math teacher and President of CFT, a union of educators and classified professionals.
In addition to failing to keep students safe during climate-fueled, extreme weather events, California’s school buildings are also a major source of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. California schools cover 730 million square feet of building space and more than 125,000 acres of land, one the largest public building footprints in the state.
A master plan for climate-resilient schools can also significantly reduce school spending on energy bills. Schools equipped with efficient electric systems use up to 80% less energy than schools that rely on fossil-gas appliances. Over the course of a year, those energy savings add up to $110,000 for an average-sized school—funds that can be reinvested to boost student learning. SB 394 will also support schools in greening their schools yards, and adding shade structures to combat extreme heat.
SB 394 passed through the Senate with unanimous, bipartisan votes in all committees and on the Senate floor. It has also passed unanimously through the Assembly Natural Resources and Education Committees—and will be heard in Assembly Appropriations this week and is expected to be referred to the suspense file. If the bill comes off suspense on September 1, it will head to a vote on the Assembly floor, then the Senate for a concurrence vote, and then on to the Governor’s desk. For SB 394—a first of its kind bill in the nation—to move forward, California legislators need to either secure a one-time $10 million investment from the General Fund or designate the funding from already allocated climate-related grants.
“We know it’s a tight budget year, but the costs of not investing in climate resiliency for our schools will be much higher than the $10 million we need to spend now. Over time, this one-time investment will pay itself back many times over by improving student health and learning, reducing school districts’ energy bills, and securing a more stable climate,” said Jonathan Klein, co-founder of UndauntedK12.
About the Climate-Ready Schools Coalition
We are a coalition of education, climate, health, youth, labor, civil rights, and business leaders. Our mission is to ensure school buildings and grounds are sustainable and resilient to equitably support student health, safety, learning, and well-being in a time of rapidly increasing extreme weather. California will neither achieve nor sustain carbon neutrality unless our public schools are transformed into sites of climate mitigation and energy efficiency. No matter how successful we are at reducing future emissions, climate change is, and will continue to be, a crisis of health and opportunity for California’s children. Schools must prepare students to live and lead in a world that is being fundamentally re-shaped by climate change.