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Sustainable Schools

Electric School Buses: The Road to Cleaner Air & Healthier Children

It was Van Jones, the iconic environmental justice commentator, who once said: “It’s hard to learn when you can’t breathe.” But the reality is that on a typical day – pre-COVID — more than 25 million children ride to and from school on buses powered by dirty diesel fuel. Every school day, they face exposure to toxins well-documented to cause a frightening list of health issues: heart disease, lung disease, cancers, and especially, asthma, which causes more school absences than any other illness.

Dirty diesel school buses have been called refineries on wheels. The soot and particulate matter that spews from them while students wait to board — and the tiny particulates that enter the bus through open windows as they travel — get embedded deep into young lungs. 

The negative impact of diesel-fueled school buses is magnified in communities, often Black, Brown, and other often marginalized communities, where most parents have little choice except to allow their children to be transported toward a future of poor health.

Getting rid of traditional school buses seems a no-brainer. 

We can and must do better. The Kenyan proverb bears repeating: Treat the Earth well. It was not given to us by our parents but loaned to us by our children.

One way to preserve the promise of a just world is to ensure that the buses students take to and from school, on field trips, and to academic and athletic events are powered by electricity and not fossil fuels. Time is running out. But policy change on school buses hasn’t come easy and has been plagued by pure partisan politics. Communities have been caught up in conversations about infrastructure, operations, and financing. Progress has stalled. 

Still, the topic of electric school buses is trending strong because it’s been pushed by progressive policymakers, mothers, and other activists who’ve stepped out front on the issue despite the foot-dragging of some.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, The Electric Vehicle Grant Fund & Program, legislation to convert the state’s school buses from diesel to electric, passed the General Assembly last month and is headed for the Governor’s signature. With strong bipartisan elected support and advocacy from Mothers Out Front Fairfax and other groups, that legislation prioritizes communities most at risk from the harmful health impacts of diesel pollution, recognizing the disproportionate impact that pollution has on the state’s communities of color. 

In Maryland, the Montgomery County Public Schools recently announced a contract to replace its diesel buses with electric ones, starting with 326 electric buses over the next four years. It marks the single largest purchase of electric school buses in North America and all the district’s buses are scheduled to be replaced with electric by 2035, meaning 1400 electric school buses in the next 14 years. 

Some cities have long embraced electric school buses. 

Twin Rivers, California, has used electric school buses since 2017 and has reported significant savings on fuel, energy, and maintenance. In 2015, three communities in Massachusetts (Cambridge, Amherst, and Concord) went to electric school buses as part of a pilot program from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. They experienced lower cost savings than expected and all three communities decided to keep their buses after the pilot program was completed. 

But the process of state-by-state change is slow, and communities really don’t have time to wait. So, it’s important to point out that there is hoped for change at the federal level, too. 

In February, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez-Mastro of Nevada, U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington and U.S. Representatives Tony Cardenas of California and Jahana Hayes of Connecticut introduced the Clean School Bus Act. The legislation provides $1 billion in grants to help school districts across the county replace traditional dirty diesel buses for cleaner, all-electric ones. “As we work to ensure a brighter future for children … it’s crucial for both the health of our students and the future of our planet that we invest in zero-emission transportation,” Senator Murray said in a press release to her Washington constituents. The bill was originally introduced by U.S. Vice President Kamala D. Harris while she served in the U.S. Senate.

The federal legislative proposal gives priority to grant applications that will serve students from families with low incomes. It would replace the most polluting types of traditional buses and would even establish partnerships with local utilities by leveraging the funding they could get to further decrease pollution. 

If America cut emissions from auto (and school bus) tailpipes, we would have healthier children and healthier communities. Diesel school buses put one of our most vulnerable populations – our children – at high risk. But electric buses level the playing field. Not every family can choose to mitigate pollution by purchasing an electric vehicle. But every family helps make the air cleaner when children are riding electric school buses.

Children are our present – and our future.

Doesn’t every child, in every school district in this country, deserve to begin and end their school day pollution-free?

Rosemary Lytle, Frontline Communications Consultant for Mothers Out Front, is a columnist who worked in newspaper journalism for nearly 20 years.