ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS WORK AT OR ATTEND K-12 SCHOOLS
“According to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, half of these adults and children spend their school days breathing air polluted with toxic chemicals, mold, viruses, bacteria, asbestos, pesticides, smog and particulates from vehicle pollution, and more.” According to the National Education Association, this is around 29 million students and school employees whose health and learning may be impacted every day.
When adjusted for inflation, North Carolina funding per student has declined 10% since 2008.[i] According to a report just issued by EducationNC, North Carolina schools now rank 48th among the fifty states in funding per student.
According to a new report issued last month, North Carolina educational systems quality rank to be 44th out of the 50 states.
Are we acting as responsible adults who love and protect our kids and our state’s future? Doesn’t look like it to me.
One-in-five of all Americans, both children, and adults, either study or work in a K-12 school. Environmental Protection Agency reports that half of all classrooms in America have poor indoor environments.  This is a national tragedy and one in which North Carolina is once again a leader.
More than half of American school buildings are more than 50 years old. This means they are much more likely to have poor indoor environments because they were built before bringing fresh air into the buildings was required. (You used to be able to open the windows, but they are now all screwed shut for energy conservation and security reasons.) Which is why the EPA says: “half of these adults and children spend their school days breathing air polluted with toxic chemicals, mold, viruses, bacteria, asbestos, pesticides, smog and particulates from vehicle pollution, and more.”
When the word “polluted” is used, almost everyone thinks about trash alongside roads or chemicals in rivers – outside stuff. The truth is that pollution indoors is now a much bigger problem than most people realize for two reasons. First, the average American spends now 93% of their time indoors. People are exposed to many more hours of indoor pollution than they used to be.
Second, indoor air pollution levels are often 2 to 5 times (and sometimes as much as 100 times) worse than outside. And to make matters worse, much of this pollution is heavier than the normal indoor air, so if you measure the pollution at the height of a 6 year old’s mouth and lungs it is higher than where the teacher’s mouth and lungs are.
North Carolina’s school funding formula has federal and state funds paying for teachers and staff and other operating costs, but under current law, most of the funding for building construction and maintenance must be provided by the counties. And if these counties are poor, and have limited budgets, they have to choose between paying teachers or fixing air conditioning. The school system’s staff who want to fix the buildings simply do not have the money to do so. The legislature could fix that.
The impact of this poor indoor environment can be measured in several ways. For example, you can count the number of days students and teachers miss due to illness, or you can count how well students in modern school buildings do on standardized tests compared to the same kind of students (equal family income, same ethnic background, etc.) in old buildings do. Solid research shows that when indoor environments are found to be poor, absentee rates go up and learning goes down regardless of how financially well off the child’s family is.
Multiple expert studies done by national experts from Harvard, Lawrence Berkley lab, and Duke have found that increasing the amount of fresh air in schools from none (because the windows are locked shut) to the standard recommended by EPA can increase student learning by 17.5% in reading and 15% in math.
Do you think those old school buildings are mostly located in high income or low income counties? And how much do you think these buildings with poor indoor environments cost those students in potential scholarships or admission to college if their grades in all their courses are reduced one or two letter grades year after year on their report card?
North Carolina’s school funding formula keeps the rich on track to success, and the poor on track to continued poverty.
The bottom line is this: if North Carolina wants to get out of being the 44th lowest ranked state in the country for quality of K-12 education, we must move from being the 48th ranked state in investing in the education of our children. And when we do, we must spend a good portion of those funds on fixing the indoor environment of the schools.