By: Andrea Suarez Falken, Special Advisor for Infrastructure and Sustainability, U.S. Department of Education.
On July 26, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) recognized 27 schools, five school districts, and four postsecondary institutions, as well as one state education agency official, at a Washington, D.C. ceremony for their efforts to cultivate sustainable, healthy facilities, wellness practices, and hands-on, outdoor, environmental learning.
By highlighting schools’, districts’, and postsecondary institutions’ cost-saving, health promoting, and performance-enhancing sustainability and environmental education practices, ED-GRS celebrates these schools and brings more attention to their work. The ceremony was a reminder of the many new initiatives afoot at ED, as a result of decades of nationwide advocacy and growing awareness surrounding the green schools movement.
The Biden Administration has taken significant steps on environmental sustainability, climate, environmental health, and infrastructure, and new programs have been implemented related to sustainable schools at other federal agencies. While ED is not authorized dedicated environmental education or school infrastructure programs, we have worked to think creatively about school sustainability, infrastructure, health, and environmental education. In the past year ED has:
- Strengthened its participation in multiple interagency efforts related to sustainability, including collaborating on the release of a White House toolkit to help schools and districts access available funding, as well as technical assistance opportunities and planning tools to improve school sustainability and environmental health, as part of a broader Plan for Building Better Infrastructure.
- Administered the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program, which includes $122 billion to support a wide range of pandemic response and recovery efforts, such as school improvements to ventilation and building energy systems that support healthy environments and reduce energy costs.
- Offered guidance on the late liquidation of relief funds for construction purposes.
- Developed agency structures to steer and coordinate on matters related to school sustainability and infrastructure.
- Designated an ED employee as Special Advisor for Infrastructure and Sustainability to help drive public engagement, programs, coordination, and guidance with consideration to these matters.
- Conducted public engagement through webinars, calls, and public listening sessions regarding 1) environmental impact, infrastructure, and operations; 2) whole child health and wellness, including environmental health; and 3) environmental, outdoor, climate, and sustainability education.
- ED’s most exciting efforts to advance school sustainability for all schools — not just the ED-GRS honorees — stem from its fiscal year 2023 proposal for the creation of a new office and clearinghouse.
This new Office of Infrastructure and Sustainability would oversee a proposed National Clearinghouse on School Infrastructure and Sustainability and administer the ongoing ED-GRS recognition award. The office would provide capacity to engage with multi-agency efforts, education stakeholders, states, and districts. Whereas, in the past, this work was undertaken in an informal and voluntary manner, the office would institutionalize an ED structure to advise on matters related to climate, sustainability, environment, and infrastructure and lead coordination, outreach, and interagency collaboration. The clearinghouse would provide technical assistance and training to state and local education agencies on issues related to educational facility planning, design, financing, construction, improvement, operation, and maintenance, including green building design and operation practices consistent with the Administration’s commitment to address climate change.
All of this, of course, is in addition to the implementation of our ED-GRS award for school sustainability designed to spotlight useful and innovative practices. To learn more about this year’s U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools, District Sustainability Awardees, and Postsecondary Sustainability Awardees, visit the website and annual Highlights Report. You may also subscribe to the ED-GRS newsletter and follow these efforts on Facebook and Twitter.
Know that, under the guidance of the Biden Administration, ED is reviewing every available tool to prioritize equitable access to healthy, safe, sustainable, resilient, 21st century learning environments and sustainability learning that equips students to face the challenges of the future. We look forward to recognizing more schools and districts for their sustainability efforts in the years to come. Remember: Schools must be nominated to receive the ED-GRS award. Be sure to reach out to your state education authorities if you are doing work in all three award Pillars!