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A Green New Deal for Public Schools is investment we need

Ecological justice solutions are not a new idea for MPS, which has a history of implementing green school initiatives. With more federal funding, we could take these initiatives to the level that reality requires.

Photo by Yustinus Tjiuwanda on Unsplash

While the high in Minneapolis on this, the first Monday in October, is 88 degrees, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) started the school year with 93-degree heat. A few degrees hotter and the district considered delaying the first day of school for the sites with insufficient air conditioning

The climate emergency had staggering effects on students over the summer, too. When the gym, cafeteria and other parts of the school building at Armatage were too hot to safely host programming, Minneapolis Kids staff (an MPS program) had to move 90 students and their entire set up into two classrooms and a hallway. Staff canceled two field trips due to wildfire smoke and one to extreme heat advisories. 

Across the state, 22 Minnesota cities have declared a climate emergency. Earlier this year, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill committing Minnesota to transition off of fossil fuels and ensure 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. 

This is an important commitment, and also a key opportunity to bring public school infrastructure up to clean, green, 21st-century standards. With dramatic staff shortages and declining enrollment, the need is as clear as ever for the public to rally around our schools.  

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As MPS educators writing this, we know our communities can rise to meet the social and environmental crises of our time and make schools hubs of safety and resilience.  

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts unveiled the Green New Deal for Public Schools. It calls for $1.4 trillion over 10 years in federal funding to support upgrades to school buildings and green infrastructure while making major investments in teaching and learning. As we talk with students about missing outdoor activities due to wildfire smoke and to coworkers about resisting burnout, this bill is a beacon of hope. What if we had fully staffed schools, green school buildings that prepare students to make a livable future on Earth, and a deep culture of restorative justice in our classrooms?    

Due to short staffing and teacher burnout, one of us supports a kindergarten classroom with 34 students (originally planned to be two classes). Many of the students are in school for the first time, and are experiencing big emotions being in a new place, with so many kids in one room. When these emotions have no other outlet, kids lash out at each other. As a school team we are working our butts off to bring the care, routines and fun learning to support these kids through this transition. But it’s a setup for more burnout, and the children feel the stress in the room.  

We need to pay educators what we deserve, and support schools to be spaces of emotional stability.  The Green New Deal for Public Schools would create 1.3 million new, good-paying jobs funded annually, including 339,000 educator resource jobs. A $250 billion investment in Resource Block Grants would fund the expanded staff, social services, training, and professional development that we need in Minnesota public schools over the next decade. 

As members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, we are working for exactly this. We celebrated victories when the Minnesota Legislature invested in solar for schools, expanded special education funding, and more. We fight for working conditions and wages that will keep us in this career, and for school buildings and curriculum that support students in our climate crisis.

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Students are mandating changes too, with thousands of youth marching at the State Capitol for action on climate, and a recently formed Minneapolis Student Union calling for more student voice in school policies. MPS students helped lead actions to shut down the toxic HERC trash incinerator in Minneapolis and joined lawsuits to stop the Line 3 tarsands pipeline. Students are hungry for schools to model emotional stability and for us to take seriously the environmental violence we are living in. 

Jason Rodney
Jason Rodney
Ecological justice solutions are not a new idea for MPS, which has a history of implementing green school initiatives. The district is working to reduce transportation emissions, there are solar panels on over 20 district sites, and many middle schoolers explore green careers as part of their education planning, as a few examples. With more federal funding, we could take these initiatives to the level that reality requires. (We also need to make sure our state puts federal funding to work in our schools.)

2022 polling found that the Green New Deal for Public Schools is strongly supported by the public with 69% approval among likely voters. It has majority support from urban to suburban and rural voters and among all ethnicities, with 81% of Black voters expressing support. Despite its popularity, funding for schools and care work specifically tied to climate goals was dropped from the final Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 in the final weeks of negotiations. 

Rachel Schmitt
Rachel Schmitt
The climate crisis will not be solved by investments in the public school system alone. We need to end the main driver of the crisis — continued dependence on fossil fuels — and implement just transitions for communities across sectors of the economy and society. 

We can’t afford to wait any longer for building upgrades and full staffing. We owe it to future generations to tackle the longstanding inequities of the public education system while also thoroughly preparing it for the new challenges presented by climate instability and a warming world.  

Jason Rodney is a special education assistant at Anishinabe Academy, and Rachel Schmitt is a first-grade English Learner teacher.