Home Climate change Want to Boost Educational Outcomes, Governor Northam? Then Green the Schools!

Want to Boost Educational Outcomes, Governor Northam? Then Green the Schools!


by A Siegel

Governor Ralph Northam has announced his proposal for a significant bump in the Commonwealth’s education investment.

The budget includes the single-largest increase for at-risk schools in Virginia history, raises teacher salaries 3 percent, funds more school counselors and new staff supports for English language learners, and makes significant new flexible funds available for local divisions.

With other proposals for pre-K funding and “to make tuition-free community college available to low- and middle-income students who pursue jobs in high-demand fields,” it seems clear that the Northam administration believes that the Democratic Party control of both house will enable real steps forward in strengthening Virginia’s educational system.

Upfront, educational system performance and outcomes matter to, among other things, Virginia’s economy. Boosting high school graduation rates (one of the likely outcomes from the Governor’s proposed investments) leads to improved local (and state) economic performance: increased employment and salaries, higher tax revenues, reduced health expenses, and reduced government expenditures (such as on prisons). Thus, there are many reasons to praise and welcome Governor Northam’s proposals.

Absent from these proposals, however, is the most cost-effective tool to improve educational outcomes: (an aggressive program to) Green the SchoolsIn short, greening school systems provides a reliable path to:

  • Improve
    • Educational Results
    • Student, Teacher, and Staff morale
    • Student, Teacher, and Staff health
    • Improve Economic Performance in the near-, mid-, and long-term
  • Create jobs in the local economy
  • Reduce
    • pollution
    • costs

As to that last, the odds are that greening the school system might be the only reliable path to reduce costs while improving results.

And, oh by the way, an aggressive program to green Virginia’s schools would also help the Commonwealth move to tackle the climate challenge.

Save moneyreduce pollutiondemonstrate leadership boost economic performanceimprove educational outcomestaking even a cursory look at the benefit streams makes it clear that a green schools program should be top of the agenda.

Some background and additional thoughts

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. You are not wrong if you believe eliminating that discomfort would 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.

Greening the Schools, for many reasons, will improve student performance with healthier (driving lower absenteeism, as seen in the office environment) and more attentive students in an environment more conducive to learning. There are, 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”. Infrastructure greening projects often have under five year paybacks due to utility (water, gas, electricity, sewage) and maintenance savings. 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 (cool) 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 require 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 Commonwealth, is unlikely to ever occur as there is 10s of billions of $$$ 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. As well, for the local community, this means creating jobs and economic activity within the economy rather than (in most cases) spending even more money to import energy from outside the community.
  • Foster capacity for “greening” the Commonwealth: Via this initiative, school systems across the country would create demand for architects, general contractors, and workers who understand how to build with energy efficiency and environmental consequences in mind. Local government officials (politicians, administrators, code writers, inspectors) will learn about the benefits and technical issues of “green.” The general public will learn about “green” and energy-efficiency 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 Commonwealth-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. Better cleaning products and water management will reduce runoff into the sewage system and have less loaded water runoff. Greened buildings and school grounds will also reduce urban-heat island impacts.
  • 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).

And, perhaps most importantly, greening schools boosts student performance and academic 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.

    • Fewer absences mean higher student performance.
    • Fewer days with substitute teachers means higher student performance.
    • Better daylighting, cleaner air, better heating/cooling, quieter spaces (in part due to more efficient HVAC systems), etc all mean better student performance.

Taking aggressive action to green schools is about one of the smartest steps the Commonwealth 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.

(Part of …) Virginia is already a leader 

Governor Northam doesn’t have far to look to find tangible examples of all of the above. Arlington County Public SchoolsDiscovery Elementaryis the largest zero-energy school in the US.The Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) is recognized as “one of the greenest school districts in the country“.  And …

College Park Elementary, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

Perhaps the Governor could visit these and meet with leading Virginia experts en route to making greening schools a centerpiece of his educational plan.


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