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Survey Says: U.S. Schools Need Energy Overhaul

A report released this month by the U.S. Department of Education’s statistical bureau found that half of the nation’s public school facilities need at least $200 billion in repairs and modernization to be considered in good overall condition. The average investment needed was $4.5 million per school. The findings come from a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) during the 2012-13 school year.

According to the report, one-quarter of all permanent school buildings were in fair or poor condition overall, along with 45 percent of portable or temporary buildings. But the report’s findings on the condition of individual building features tell another story: school energy systems are failing, and school communities are paying the price.

30 percent of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, 29 percent of energy management and exterior lighting systems, and between 20-25 percent of all roofs, electrical, and interior lighting systems were found to be in fair or poor condition. One in five schools has not had an energy-system evaluation in the past five years.

School energy systems are important because…

As of 2009, public K-12 enrollment totaled nearly 50 million, according to the NCES. These students were served by nearly 7 million teachers, instructional aides, coordinators, and other faculty and facilities staff at over 133,000 schools. Consider also the number of parents, volunteers, athletic staff, and others attending or participating in events on school grounds, and easily one in five Americans spends at least some time at a public K-12 school every day school is in session. California alone is home to roughly 6 million K-12 students, and 320,000 faculty and staff at nearly 11,000 schools.

Functional and healthy school facilities are critical to a quality education. Studies consistently show that lighting, temperature, ventilation, and acoustic conditions in schools can impact students’ ability to think critically and absorb information, along with reducing negative health outcomes. Test scores improve, and teacher retention is higher in schools with healthier facilities.

Asthma is the number one cause of school absenteeism in the United States, causing more than 13 million lost schools days each year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. According to the NCES report, 17 percent of schools reported unsatisfactory or very unsatisfactory ventilation and air conditioning in permanent buildings. In temporary or portable buildings that number was closer to 20 percent.

So what?

The findings point to the importance of programs such as California’s Proposition 39, approved by voters in 2012. That program closed a corporate-tax loophole and diverted half of the new revenue – roughly $2.5 billion over five years – to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in public schools.

Prop 39 is the most ambitious school energy efficiency program in the country. The new revenue will help reverse the trend of decreasing commitments to maintaining healthy and high-functioning schools and should be seen as a model for advocates across the country.

After all, as Next Generation Co-Founder, Tom Steyer, noted in his keynote address to the opening session of the 4th annual Green Schools National Conference this week, “If we want to create a culture of sustainability in this nation – not just in K-12 education – schools are the place to start.” 

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