This article is part of Climate Justice Organizing for Belonging, a series co-produced with NPQ and Mothers Out Front. The key question guiding this organizational shift—and this series—is: what does successful organizing look like for the most impacted when resources fully support them?
We all know the song. The wheels on the bus go round and round all through the town. But what about the air on the bus? For millions of children and adolescents, that air makes them cough and cough due to toxic fumes laden with particulate matter that children breathe in from diesel-powered school buses.
I’ve always told my daughters that if you’re taking action, there is hope. As a National Leadership Team member and volunteer for Mothers Out Front, I am modeling that by organizing parents here in Virginia and around the country to advocate for a just transition to electric school buses.
Nationwide, 26 million children travel on 480,00 school buses each day, 90 percent of which run on diesel fuel. In Fairfax County, VA, where my family and I live, there are 1,625 diesel school buses, making it the second largest school bus fleet in the country. The county’s children, who sometimes ride these buses for up to four hours a day, are exposed to up to 12 times more air toxins than the rest of the population. This exposure is linked to reduced lung function and increased incidences of asthma and pneumonia. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that school bus diesel exposure poses as much as 23 to 46 times the cancer risk considered significant under federal law. In Virginia, asthma rates for children are higher than in other areas of the country, disproportionally affecting rural parts of the state that are medically underserved.
I first heard about Mothers Out Front in 2019 while doing climate advocacy work with a coalition in Northern Virginia. The more I learned, the more scared I felt for my kids’ future, impressing upon me the urgent need to do more to help. We as mothers are the ones who must fight for our kids’ future when politicians and corporations won’t. I wanted to bring my friends and peers into the movement in a way that was easily actionable and fit their busy schedules. I learned about electric school buses from a Mothers Out Front organizer and realized how effective the group’s organizing was. For me, the electric school bus campaign was a clear avenue to act on and one that moms could easily relate to.
As school buses are the largest mass transit system in the country, transitioning to electric buses can significantly reduce greenhouse emissions, even when the source of electricity used to power the buses is considered. The health and safety implications of such a transition are also huge. Electric vehicles don’t produce exhaust fumes, which means cleaner air and fewer doctors’ visits for children with respiratory problems.
Using the Power of Legislation
Upfront costs are one of the toughest hurdles when planning deployment of any climate solution. This is especially true for cash-strapped school districts. But the cost benefits of electric buses, which include energy incentives and savings for school districts operators, are well documented. Additionally, US Public Interest Research Group’s studies show that while electric buses are more expensive upfront, lifetime savings per bus could be up to $400,000 in fuel expenses and $125,000 in averted maintenance costs. Here in Fairfax County, those savings would be significant.
After meeting with our local school district’s transportation director and fleet manager, it was clear they wanted to make the transition to electric, but the upfront cost was a major issue. If Fairfax didn’t have the budget for it, such a transition would be even harder for smaller districts. Mothers Out Front decided the best way to help school districts with upfront costs would be through legislation. Our Virginia-based team of six researched existing legislation as well as the health impacts, air quality issues, and climate impacts that a bill could address. We met weekly to discuss and strategize and enlisted the help of our state delegate, Mark Keam.
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After compiling enough information, we started writing our bill, which was modeled after the federal Clean School Bus Act of 2019. Designed to be a grant program for the state of Virginia, our proposed bill eventually became the Virginia Electric Vehicle Grant Fund and Program (HB 2118)—a state-level grant fund that prioritizes localities with high asthma levels and poor air quality, helping school districts to cover the cost of upgrading their school buses to electric.
The bill was first introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 2020 by delegate Keam. It took persistence, many meetings with legislators, and two sessions in the General Assembly. But finally, in 2021, HB 2118 was signed into law, making Virginia the first state to establish a grant-funded program to transition to an electric school bus fleet.
The campaign’s next step is to get money into the statewide fund, and there are several sources we can tap—including federal dollars, philanthropic grants, or private donations—to get it. Once money is in the fund, the Virginia Department of Energy will establish a working group to help implement a feasible transition plan for the state. Mothers Out Front is ready to get creative, but our first priority is making sure the fund isn’t cut as state governor Glenn Youngkin is trying to reverse other important climate legislation.
To move this work forward, our core group is slowly building a relationship with the new county superintendent and meets periodically with the Fairfax school board to help advocate for the transition to electric buses. We use our networks to turn out parents to school board meetings and focus on keeping the district on track with its commitment to replace its diesel-powered bus fleet by 2035.
Last October, the Biden administration announced the Clean School Bus Grant Fund. Housed under the EPA, this $5 billion federal grant will help school districts transition to electric buses over the next five years. This year, $1 billion in grants has already been awarded to districts around the country, and the next round of funding is set to open soon. Mothers Out Front is also a member of the national Alliance for Electric School Buses, which is playing a large part in shaping the EPA funding. This alliance of 25 organizations will help Mothers Out Front teams around the country tackle next steps as we move toward our goal.
Even my daughters are taking action. Just last year, one of my daughters became a plaintiff in the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit, suing Virginia for exacerbating the impacts of climate change in the state by choosing to continue relying primarily on fossil fuels. The original climate-related lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, was filed in 2015 against the US government. It asserted that, by allowing the continued combustion of fossil fuels, the government was not fulfilling its sovereign duty to protect its citizens.
Through this electric school bus campaign, our state will see a decrease in carbon emissions, healthier children, and the power people have when they come together and take action to make a difference.