As a member of the board of trustees of a Bakersfield school district, my first priority and that of my colleagues is to ensure our students receive the best education possible.
Our student body reflects the region’s diversity. According to the Kern Economic Development Corporation, almost two-thirds of our county’s population identifies as non-caucasian. So I welcomed the opportunity to attend a recent meeting of the California Air Resources Board’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee here in Bakersfield.
It was immediately clear that the EJAC, virtually unknown outside regulatory circles, wields considerable influence over CARB, particularly with respect to plans for updating regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change.
It was also clear that many policies EJAC is advocating could have damaging unintended consequences for our schools and students. I’ll elaborate on just a few.
Much of the EJAC agenda seems focused on wiping out California’s primary energy sources and replacing them with renewable energy. Even if this were realistic in terms of technology and infrastructure, it ignores the fact that existing policies have already driven electricity and transportation costs up dramatically and have taken a significant toll on school budgets. An energy transition of the desired magnitude would make it even worse, not to mention that shutting down the oil industry as EJAC recommends would also cut off one of the largest sources of tax revenues that support our schools.
It doesn’t seem “just” to increase schools’ energy costs while simultaneously depriving them of much-needed funding.
Another troubling recommendation is that all new construction be zero net energy by 2020. It’s hard enough for school districts to find the money to maintain their existing facilities and even harder to finance new school construction. The added cost of net zero energy buildings could make it difficult if not impossible to provide adequate educational facilities for Kern County’s growing population. Is it “just” to expect students from disadvantaged communities to learn under sub-standard conditions?
Finally, the suggested mandate that all school districts in disadvantaged communities have electric school bus fleets within the next four years is simply not grounded in reality. Districts have limited resources for home-to-school transportation, and school buses are major investments that we manage to afford by keeping them in service for their entire useful lives. It would be irresponsible for us to retire perfectly good buses early, and then spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on new fleets and the infrastructure necessary to support them. Even if we could, it’s by no means guaranteed that electric school buses would be capable of operating reliably and safely given the distances, geography and weather conditions involved.
The bottom line is this: Higher costs for energy, construction and student transportation divert precious resources away from the classroom. There will be less money for technology, books, supplies, and teachers; less money for manageable class sizes that provide the best environment for learning.
When this happens, more affluent families can and most likely will take their kids out of under-funded public schools and place them in private schools that will build EJAC’s higher costs into students’ tuition. But they will be in the minority. It’s the students from our disadvantaged communities, the ones the EJAC is supposed to be looking out for, who will pay the price if even only a few of the recommended policies are adopted.
The EJAC may not have intended to make our kids’ education collateral damage in the war on climate change, but that will be the result if they succeed.
CARB should push back on the scope and cost of EJAC’s recommendations and adopt cost-effective policies that can be phased in over a reasonable period of time, while protecting the quality of our schools as well as our environment. Considering our students are the future of California, it’s the only “just” thing to do.