June 16, 2024 11:34 am


Opinion | David Hecker: Michigan Students Deserve to Learn in a Healthy Environment

Credit: iStock

by David Hecker, Michigan Advance

As educators and advocates for public schools, we believe in empowering our students with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed and thrive later in life — but we also recognize our responsibility to provide a stable future for young people doesn’t end there. 

As the chair of the union-led Michigan Green and Health Schools Coalition, I am working alongside my colleagues to make our schools greener and healthier now and for the future.

The youngest Michiganders, and kids across the country, are facing both short and long-term threats to their health. When building infrastructure is outdated — which is often the case, as the average age of school buildings across the state is 60 years — students and staff can face problems ranging from contaminated drinking water to inadequate air filtration due to old, ineffective HVAC systems. These concerns, in addition to the health risks they can pose, are all barriers that inhibit students’ ability to learn without distractions.

In the long term, our young people will have to contend with the effects of climate change on the environment and public health — and it’s our responsibility to mitigate those effects as much as we can. One way we can do that here in Michigan is by ensuring our schools are not just safe, but also efficient, sustainable and healthy.

The good news is that Michigan is well on our way to making these things a reality. The Legislature has already appropriated $20 million to conduct a statewide facilities assessment, where experts will examine school buildings, identify any existing problems and determine the cost for either updating the building or constructing a replacement. Once that’s complete, $500 million is already set aside for these much needed upgrades and repairs.

Another critical component of this work is ensuring our school infrastructure, including both buildings and transportation, is sustainable and efficient, a goal we’re working toward at both the state and local levels as part of the Michigan Green and Healthy Schools Coalition.

Of course, as a union-led coalition, we also believe wholeheartedly in the importance of good, green union jobs as a force for positive change in both our environment and our economy. Too often, people have been made to believe that good environmental policies always come with an economic tradeoff, when in fact the opposite is true. Upgrading our energy infrastructure means creating jobs, and these must be good jobs with rights and benefits provided by a union contract.

The financial benefits extend into the long term, as well — because once we shift our school infrastructure toward reducing energy usage and relying on renewable energy sources such as solar power, districts’ energy bills will be lower. That means more of our taxpayer dollars can be used to directly support students and ensure every classroom has the resources required to help students thrive.

In the past few years, Michigan has already made enormous strides on funding for public education, but the work isn’t over — and the healthy, sustainable future our kids deserve is within reach. 

As a coalition, we work not only at the state level, but also directly alongside local districts to ensure they can take advantage of all the funding sources available to them from both the federal and state government.

With a new Michigan Legislature, demonstrated leadership from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on education and the MI Healthy Climate Plan, and the historic investments in school infrastructure from President Joe Biden through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Renew America Schools Act, we have a historic opportunity to strengthen our public schools after decades of disinvestment. 

As we do that, it’s important that our lawmakers at the state level and administrators at the local level take action in this way, so that our public school buildings and infrastructure are set up to ensure students’ success.

The Michigan Green and Healthy Schools Coalition is committed to helping create the school environments our kids, our communities, and school employees deserve.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.