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Greening America's School Houses

by a siegel Sun Jun 15th, 2008 at 11:00:56 PM EST

Last month, to far (FAR) less attention than it merited, the House of Representatives passed the 21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act with $20 billion for greening public schools across the nation.

Taking aggressive action to green schools is about one of the smartest steps the nation can take, action that should go beyond bipartisanship to true unity of action as it is a win-win-win-win strategy along so many paths:

  • Save money for communities and taxpayers

  • Create employment

  • Foster capacity for 'greening' the nation

  • Reduce pollution loads

  • Improve health

  • Improve student performance / achievement

  • And, well, other benefits. In the face of these benefits, "The White House threatened a veto, saying it was wrong for the federal government to launch a costly new school-building program."

    About the bill

    The legislation passed on a vote of 250-164, a substantial majority but not veto proof and awaits Senate action. It would provide $20 billion in the coming five years for school construction across the country (with $100 million per year allocated specifically for Katrina/Rita impacted areas). A major focus of this legislation is to drive greener design and building practices within schools, with 50% of funding in 2009 and 90% in 2013 "for public school modernization, renovation, or repairs that meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating standards, Energy Star standards, or equivalent standards." It also provides for a far more aggressive Department of Education effort to foster such green practices throughout America's school infrastructure.

    Understanding benefits ...

    When approaching the analysis with an open mind, it becomes clear: greening schools might be the most cost-effective path toward improving school performance. In fact, it might be the only educational achievement enhancing path that is also "profitable" (due to energy and operational cost benefits) even without considering the secondary (job creation, student/teacher health) and tertiary (pollution levels, capacity building for energy efficiency and other 'green' across the country) benefits.

    How could "Greening a School" improve educational achievement? Let us take just a few examples:

  • Energy Efficient Windows: Imagine your childhood classroom, the single-pane windows. When you sat next to that window in winter you might have been freezing and in hot fall/late school year frying in sun relative to your classmate 10 feet away. Hmmm ... perhaps eliminating that discomfort might have made it easier for you to focus on the teacher and your studies?

  • Daylighting: Obviously, human eyes have evolved with fluorescent lighting. Not! Consistently, tested performance (stores, factory workers, office workers (pdf) (also (pdf)), schools) has shown improvements with increased daylighting.
    A study in North Carolina revealed that children in schools with more natural day lighting scored 5 percent better on standardized tests than children in normal, comparable buildings.

  • Non-Volatile Organic Compound Paints / Cleaning Products: Eliminating VOCs will reduce headaches, disturbing odors, etc, all of which can distract from / disrupt academic achievement.
    The National Academy of Sciences commissioned a study that indicated that teacher productivity and student learning, as measured by absenteeism, is affected by indoor air quality.

  • Greening the Schools, for many reasons, will improve student performance with healthier (lower absenteeism) and more attentive students in an environment more conducive to learning. Let us explore, however, a fuller range of benefits:


  • Save money for communities and taxpayers: Quite directly, public infrastructure is one of the clearest places where the taxpayer should be concerned about the "cost to own" against the "cost to buy". What is interesting is that achieving basic green level standards (which might cut energy usage by 25% or more) often can cost less than building "normally", as good passive design might lead, for example, to lowered heating/cooling system requirements, water efficiency (such as water-less urinals) reduce piping, etc. And, achieving quite aggressive standards might have direct financial payback times from energy savings of well under five years. Remember, just like your household, your local (and national) government is getting hit by rising energy prices. Spending the resources (not just financial, also planning) for 'greening' schools will lower that burden for coming years and represents a hedge against rising energy prices (through reducing requirements for that costly energy). Green buildings also use less water (water efficient fixtures, rainwater capture, etc) and have reduced runoff (through, for example, green roofing and good landscape design), lowering sewage bills. These savings alone can make a good payback for going green.But thinking stove-piped only about direct savings sells greening schools short. There are also indirect savings. "Green" buildings have far lower absentee rates of workers. Lower absenteeism = lower costs for substitute teachers.  Green buildings will have lower maintenance requirements and more longevity for components. For example, highly reflective or green roofs have roughly twice the longevity of asphalt roofs, thus not just leading to lowered energy costs but basically meaning that the roofs won't require replacement before the entire school might requirement renovation 30-40 years in the future.

  • Create employment: Renovating buildings and investing in infrastructure today to lower tomorrow's costs means replacing spending on energy, water use, and health care (for example) on the labor and materials (from insulation to green roofing).  And, these jobs (as per below) are unlikely to disappear when school renovation and construction is 'done' (which, across the nation, is unlikely to ever occur as there is $100s of billions in backlogged renovation requirements and new schools sprout up with changing demographics) as the skills and requirements are directly transferable into other government infrastructure, businesses and homes.  And, as the housing industry slumps, this is a path to provide valuable work opportunities to businesses and workers who might otherwise be unemployed. And, doing so in a way that will save the local communities money.

  • Foster capacity for 'greening' the nation: Via this initiative, school systems across the country are going to create demand for architects, general contractors, and workers who understand how to build with energy efficiency and environmental consequences in mind.  Local government officials (politicans, administrators, code writers, inspectors) will learn about the benefits and technical issues of "green".  The general public will learn about 'green' and energy efficient options. (If your child's elementary school introduces efficient lighting, solar hot water, energy efficient windows, etc, you will hear about it time-after-time from the principal, the PTA, and perhaps your child.) Via 'greening' public buildings, in a Federal-Local-Private partnership, this will foster capacity and the lower the barriers for the private sector (whether businesses or home owners) to call on for 'greening' businesses and homes. And, it will create demand, as people get exposed to the benefits that accrue from this path.  And, greening America's building infrastructure is one of the most exciting and beneficial opportunities for tackling global warming.

  • Reduce pollution loads: Reduced energy demand, by definition, will reduce pollution levels from electrical generation (amount of pollution reduction, of course, relative to source of power).  Fostering a lowering of   Better cleaning products and water management will reduce runoff into the sewage system and have less loaded water runoff.  Greened buildings will also reduce urban-heat island impacts (through better roofing not absorbing heat, etc ...).

  • Improve health: From asthma, colds, allergies, or long-term impacts like cancer, green buildings foster improved health.  Improved health translates rather directly to performance (better attendance (by teachers and students) leads to (system wide) better performance; better health when in class does as well).

  • Improve student performance / achievement:  Think about all those benefits above, think about them holistically. If the impact on student performance were neutral, Greening Schools would be a no-brainer.  Yet, all of the analysis to date points to improved educational achievement as one goes up the green ladder in school infrastructure.  As stated above, Greening Schools might be a profitable path for achieving quite real improvements in educational performance across the nation.
  • Mired in Partisanship

    Sadly, rather than a wide bipartisanship embracing of Greening the Schools, there is partisan bickering (while all cosponsors were Democratic Representatives, 27 Republicans voted for the measure (all 164 votes against were Republican).  Some reporting on the bill put the benefits' discussion in partisan terms rather than reaching out to experts and actual studies of the issue.

    Democrats said the 21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act would save school districts billions in energy costs while reducing asthma and other environmentally linked health problems.

    Democratic supporters cited studies that a green school uses 35 percent less energy than a conventional school, reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, uses 30 percent less water and has better lighting and temperature controls that encourage student achievement.

    The legislation, said Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., will "not only save them energy, not only will make the facilities safer, cleaner and better for the learning environment these children need, it will also dramatically change the cost of running a school district."

    This is "Democratic supporters" and other framing of the discussion of the issue in partisanship, rather than turning to experts in the field and extent expert studies (pdf), rather than a discussion of (early) 20th century versus 21st century thinking about energy and infrastructure let's make this Democratic supporters versus Republicans.   And, too many Republicans were ready to oblige on multiple grounds.
    But Republicans, and the White House, saw the bill as a federal intrusion into education matters normally under the jurisdiction of states and local governments.

    Rally around the (Confederate) flag:  State's Rights!  (Of course, that doesn't apply for environmental issues like California and other states seeking more aggressive auto efficiency standards.)
    "The Democrats' massive $20 billion 'green scheme' would place faceless Washington bureaucrats in charge of priorities historically and best handled by states and local school districts," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. Other Republicans warned it would siphon off funds from federal programs for poor or disabled students.

    The Republican Party and John Boehner: defenders of the poor and disadvantaged.  To be honest, one of the challenges of building school infrastructure more efficiently is the resource challenge of becoming knowledgeable about costs, benefits, options, and opportunities. The thousands of school districts across the country are far from uniform in their ability to develop this expertise.  Thus, truth be told: this is not "best handled" across all these districts due to this resource challenge.

    This legislation is actually truly excellent Federal/Local/Private partnership for moving the nation forward. The Federal government is providing funding and expertise assistance to Local governments to improve their infrastructure using Private businesses (for the most part) to execute the projects.

    The bill "would create an inappropriate and costly new federal role in modernizing and renovating public schools," the White House said in issuing its veto threat.

    "Inappropriate". Huh?  "Costly" if one only examines cost and doesn't consider benefit, sadly, a technique being applied across too many arenas (and here and here and here and ... For a counter discussion.).  And, of course, those benefits extend beyond the schools into larger public goods.

    Not surprisingly, the RWSM is in the game. Let's take a look at the National Review Online's Dan Lips (Heritage) for a moment who argues that being "High on Green" is "a disadvantaged approach".

    Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school in the United States. National test scores reveal that half of all low-income fourth graders cannot read. Given such alarming statistics, you'd think that helping at-risk kids would be the top education-related priority on Capitol Hill.

    On Wednesday, the House passed the "21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act," a $6.4 billion school-construction program. Essentially, it's a regulatory gift bag for environmental groups and labor unions

    Note this quite direct rejection of any benefit from this program which, for Lips and the RWSM, is simply to benefit eco-extremists and labor mafiosa.  System-of-system analysis and considerations are not worth touching for those wishing to propagate talking points.

    This is the first major K-12 education package to pass the House this Congress -- which shows what liberals' true priorities are.

    Yup, what are those priorities? Helping students perform better. Assisting local governments achieve more cost-efficient school systems. Reducing pollution. Looking for programs that provide win-win-win strategies (oh, yes, and lose-lose: a loss for serial polluters in the energy industry and for Republican campaign and RWSM outlets' (like Heritage) coffers traditionally filled from the serial polluters' profits).

    For years, liberals have blamed the "under-funding" of No Child Left Behind for many problems in American education. (In fact, federal spending on K-12 education is set to grow by 36 percent during the Bush presidency.) But instead of focusing on hiring more teachers or giving more money to high-poverty schools, the House chose to invest in building environmentally friendly schools. In fact, this $6 billion new program is nearly half as large as the entire Title I program, the main federal education program geared toward helping kids in high-poverty schools.

    Again, it is nice to see that he cares so deeply about the disadvantaged in the United States.  But, as per the above, this is a path to improve school performance while saving money.  Hmmm, perhaps those financial savings will enable local governments to spend more on teachers and other programs?

    Just imagine what good that $6.4 billion could do as scholarships to disadvantaged kids. More than 600,000 kids could receive scholarships worth $10,000 a piece to escape low-performing public schools and attend a school of their parents' choice. Beyond helping these students, the exodus from the public-school system would ease crowding (reducing the need for new buildings) and relieve state and local education budgets. State and local policymakers then could decide how to use the saved money to improve education.

    Ah, yes, let us take this money to weaken the public school systems.

    Of course, the Green Schools legislation isn't actually meant to improve education. The real purpose is to expand federal power, and give Congress more control over decisions once left to those at the local level. Anyone listening to the floor debate over H.R. 3021 might have thought they were watching a school-board meeting. Fixing the plumbing in your local public school shouldn't be a congressional concern.

    Fortunately, President Bush is expected to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk, and Senate action is unlikely. So Americans shouldn't expect to see any federally mandated "green" schools soon. But it should serve as a preview of what Congress is planning for education. It may earn an "A" from liberal interest groups, but it deserves an "F" from parents and taxpayers.

    Clearly ideological filters were applied when listening to this debate.

    And, that grading system comes from that ideological filter rather than any honest accounting of the costs and benefits that will accrue from a nation-wide effort to green the schools.

    Simply put, for the nation, this program is an incredibly sensible path for making progress across multiple arenas.

    Sadly, rather than a serious bipartisan discussion about how to take something strong and make it stronger, the ideological lens has descended.

    Rather than looking to see how to construct win-win-win strategies that will work for the public sector (at all levels), business, and citizens, obstructionism rules when confronted with opportunities to construct a better path forward.

    While this bill seems unlikely to become law in 2008, don't be surprised if it makes to the next President's desk in January 2009.

    Ask yourself:  Are you doing your part to ENERGIZE THE GLOBE?

    Are you ready  to do your part?


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