Federal investments in electric school buses will improve children’s health, bring jobs to Georgia, and save school districts money

Every child should be able to safely travel to school and learn in a healthy environment. Yet for the more than 1.7 million public school students in Georgia, it’s nearly impossible to escape the harms that come along with riding to and from school on buses powered by dirty diesel fuel.

Fortunately, our U.S. Senators — Senators Warnock and Ossoff — along with their colleagues in the House, have an opportunity to create a healthier school environment by supporting the transition to zero-emission school buses as part of federal infrastructure investments.

As Chair of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education and a former teacher, I’ve seen firsthand the dirty exhaust fumes our students breathe in not only when they hop on and off the school bus every day, but also when they’re simply waiting outside school while buses idle nearby. In our state alone, there are more than 15,000 school buses on the road. While a small number of school districts like Fulton County recently rolled out their first electric school buses, the vast majority of our school buses are powered by diesel fuel and spew toxic emissions into the air each and every day.

Georgia is no stranger to unhealthy levels of pollution. According to the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report, while Fulton County received an “A” for levels of short-term particle pollution, we also received an “F” for dangerous levels of ozone, one of the most widespread pollutants.

Studies show that exposure to air pollution is detrimental to children’s lung function. The more than 250,000 kids in our state with asthma are especially vulnerable.

Further, kids from low-income communities are more likely to depend on traveling to school on the bus, and thus bear more of the burden of pollution from diesel-powered buses. Black and Hispanic communities are also exposed to disproportionally high levels of particle pollution, putting their health at greater risk.

Studies show that air pollution can impact academic achievement, too. Exposure to pollutants in schools, including from diesel buses, has been linked to lower test scores and school attendance rates.

Setting our students up for academic success must start with making sure they’re learning in a safe and healthy environment. Making the transition to zero-emission buses is a no-brainer, and it’s what our students deserve. As a father of two school-aged children, it’s also personal to me.

That’s why I hope Senators Warnock and Ossoff will continue to support an investment of at least $20 billion in the transition to zero-emission school buses as part of federal infrastructure investments. Both have already demonstrated they are champions for electrifying vehicles, and now is the time to build on this momentum.

This $20 billion investment will transition one-fifth of the country’s school bus fleet, including a percentage of ours here in Georgia, to zero-emission buses. And with Blue Bird Corporation — one of the country’s largest electric school bus manufacturers and employer of more than 1,500 Georgians, with the potential for more jobs to be created — it’s a win-win for Georgia.

A recent poll by the American Lung Association shows that Georgia voters agree this is an important move for our children. 75% of Georgia voters — across all major demographic groups — say it’s especially important to invest in zero-emissions vehicles like electric school buses to reduce air pollution around children.

Not only is this investment a smart decision for our students’ health and learning, it’s also smart for our finances. Transitioning to zero-emission school buses will save Georgia school districts and taxpayers money over the long-term.

Zero-emission school buses can save schools about $2,000 in fuel costs and $4,400 in maintenance costs each year, making them 80% less costly to maintain than diesel buses.

A significant federal investment will bring this technology where it is needed most — to local school districts like ours. But right now, because the upfront cost can be high, many districts across Georgia continue to stick with polluting, unhealthy diesel buses.

Our children are worth the investment.

Senators Warnock and Ossoff, thank you for your support on this issue. We hope you will continue to stand up for our students by supporting a $20 billion investment for the transition to zero-emission buses.

Jason Esteves currently serves as Board Chair and an at-large representative on the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education. As an attorney and former educator, Jason has focused his efforts at promoting equity and improving the financial outlook of the school system.

Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, Friday, July 10, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)