The School Bus Goes Electric
With nearly 94% of school buses diesel powered, districts are starting to look at converting
Laura Schifter, Ed.M.'07, Ed.D.'14, calls it her climate moment.
It was 2018, and yet another report had been issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warning of little more than a decade remaining to cut carbon emissions before the point of no return.
Laura Schifter driving a Lion electric bus in September.
If not, the rise in floods, drought, severe storms, and extreme heat would put millions around the world at risk. For Schifter, an educational researcher specializing in federal policy and special education, years of trying to solve the problems facing the education system suddenly seemed meaningless in the face of global catastrophe.
“I realized I needed to do whatever I could on the climate issue, both to contribute to this existential threat and to ensure there’s going to be a world for my three kids.”
It’s a big part of what drove Schifter, a lecturer at the Ed School, to launch K12 Climate Action, a new initiative from the Aspen Institute, where Schifter is a senior fellow. The initiative is working to unlock the potential of the education sector to enact sweeping, systemic solutions to fight against climate change.
It’s easy to forget the impact schools have on the environment, but as Schifter discovered, once you see it, it’s hard to ignore. Nearly 100,000 public K–12 schools occupy 2 million acres of land across the United States. In total, they leave quite the carbon footprint, producing nearly 530,000 tons of food waste a year, and buildings accounting for almost 40% of carbon dioxide emissions.
Drawing together a bipartisan commission comprising education and environmental leaders, the group released findings from a year’s worth of listening tours and research in their K12 Climate Action Plan, proposing actionable climate solutions at the local, state, and federal level.
“After this report, I stepped back and thought about the education sector beyond just the teaching and learning that goes on for kids in the classroom and thought about it as a public, economic sector,” Schifter says. “The education sector has to come together to address climate change.”
One of the biggest emission factors of schools, and perhaps one of the most surprising, are school buses. The nation’s 480,000 school buses represent the largest mass transit fleet in the country, shuttling nearly 26 million children between school and home every day, from farmhouses in Idaho to apartment buildings in New York City.
Currently, 94% of buses on the road are diesel powered. Not only are those buses harming the air, but they are also a danger to student health, contributing to higher rates of asthma and other health-related issues, particularly among students of color who are disproportionately exposed to air pollution.
In addition to the environmental and health benefits, there is also an economic incentive for schools to invest in electric buses, which can save a district an average of $170,000 in maintenance and operation costs over the lifetime of a single electric bus.
Gilbert Rosas, the energy education specialist for California’s Stockton Unified School District, has led the district’s efforts to convert to electric buses. Thanks to a mix of partnering with private companies and grants from the California Air Resources Board, the California Energy Commission, and rebates from their local utility company, in less than 12 months the district built its first charging stations and had nearly a dozen electric buses on the road.
Rosas says in Stockton, a district where more than 80% of schools and communities are considered high poverty, electric buses are a means of change for disadvantaged communities where children are at greater exposure to exhaust fumes which have been linked to worse respiratory health in developing lungs. Even inside buses, children are often exposed to the most polluted air they will experience during their day.
“We’ve shown in California what can be done with $5 million dollars,” Rosas says. “We’ve blazed the trail and it would be silly not to use this model.”
At a K–12 Climate Action event in September, (left to right) Malinda Sandhu (Lion Electric), John King(former U.S. secretary of education), Nate Baguio (Lion Electric), Christine Todd Whitman (former head of the EPA), and Orville Thomas (Lion Electric) toured Lion Electric's fleet of electric school buses being used by Alice West Fleet Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia.
Other districts around California and across the country are indeed heeding the message, transitioning their fleets and discovering for themselves the enormous environmental, economic, and health benefits.
Now, the issue is moving up the political ladder. Newly elected Boston mayor Michelle Wu made climate change a top priority of her campaign, including calling for converting the city’s school buses to electric. At the federal level, the historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill has allocated $5 billion in funding for electric school buses.
It’s not just adults advocating for change, either. In Kentucky, 16-year-old Solyana Mesfin became the first student to serve on the Kentucky Board of Education. She’s become a leading voice in the conversation for converting Kentucky’s school buses to electric. Her efforts drew the attention of HGSE master’s student Andrew Brennen, co-founder of the Kentucky Student Voice Team.
Brennen shared his support in an op-ed in the Northern Kentucky Tribune, calling for the state to use federal COVID-relief funds to cover the upfront costs of electrifying its bus fleet. Brennen says once you connect the dots between diesel-powered buses and environmental and student health outcomes, it becomes clear that something has to change.
“Everyone has had that moment when they’ve sat behind a school bus and you’re rolling up your windows as it’s pouring out fumes, and the kids on the bus are breathing it in. It takes communities to come together, especially across stakeholders, and it can’t just be parents or teachers. These school systems are democratic institutions, and it takes people to use their power to move away from the status quo.”
That’s the message Schifter is instilling in her own children, who are all under the age of 10. Already they’ve attended climate protests and taken part in youth-led climate strikes. Schifter says that while the realities of the potential destruction of climate change may get scary, now it’s important for them “to understand the fundamentals and potential solutions out there.”
Recently, Schifter overheard her eldest daughter sharing a drawing with a family member over FaceTime. In it, she’d drawn a picture of a car that not only would run on clean energy but would even take carbon out of the atmosphere. Of course, there was some youthful creativity mixed in, too.
“It also had robotic arms that delivered a snack,” Schifter says. But her daughter’s creation underlines an important point. “She was able to recognize the problem and think about solutions. That’s a big piece, not just talking to her and saying there’s nothing she can do. We ask her how she might be able to solve this problem.”
— Andrew Bauld, Ed.M.’16, is a freelance writer and podcast producer. A former classroom teacher, he lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife.