#120, Laura Schifter, Senior Fellow leading K12 Climate Action with the Aspen Institute

Laura Schifter is a Senior Fellow leading K12 Climate Action with the Aspen Institute and a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Host Raj Daniels 02:01

If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Laura Schifter 02:05

So one thing that’s interesting about myself that I like to share and let people know is that I am dyslexic and actually grew up having a lot of difficulties reading. And I think that my dyslexia actually greatly impacts the way that I think about and work on issues today.

Host Raj Daniels 02:26

So that is interesting. I have a couple of friends one very close to me who’s dyslexic, he actually runs quite a successful business. His biggest challenge I want to ask a question for him, then is that how do you handle your emails?

Laura Schifter 02:38

So I actually use technology. I think one of the things that’s amazing is how technology has really advanced to help people with dyslexia. But I use speech to text and text to speech frequently when I’m dealing with emails. To read aloud my emails, I use the text to speech feature all the time, and my computer reads the emails aloud to me, and it makes things a lot easier.

Host Raj Daniels 03:07

You know, you’re right. And I will convey that to him. I think he does something very similar. But I’m always just curious, because, as you mentioned, now that we have the technology to help people with, I’m going to say not learning problems, but my daughter has a very special name for it. She says people are uniquely gifted. Prior to technology, I just kind of wonder, in my mind how people were able to maneuver through some of the required reading, you know, in school and just in everyday life.

Laura Schifter 03:33

Yeah, it was certainly difficult. Growing up, I think one of the things that I was very fortunate to have was parents who really understood that I just needed access to material, that it wasn’t that I was any less intelligent than my other sisters. So they really worked hard. My sister actually used to record books on tape for me. And she would help me with reading by doing that. And I was lucky to have a lot of teachers who also recognized my ability to learn and work with me to get access to the material so that it could demonstrate what I know.

Host Raj Daniels 04:14

It really is amazing. Do you still have the recordings?

Laura Schifter 04:17

I think my mom does still have some of the recordings that my sister had made. Yes.

Host Raj Daniels 04:22

That must be really special.

Laura Schifter 04:24

Yes, it certainly is. And, you know, I think I think my parents and I think my teachers all the time for really helping me get to where I am. I feel so fortunate that you know, I was able to have the academic trajectory that I did. And one of the things I have been working on for a long time is trying to figure out ways to actually have more students be able to have success in their academic trajectory as well and have teachers be able to hold them to high expectations but ensure that they have the tools that they need to reach those expectations.

…with over 50 million children in public schools, that’s nearly one in every six Americans in our public schools, that as we consider needs around mitigation and adaptation, we actually have a real opportunity to help educate, and support teaching and learning so that children and youth can develop the skills that they need to advance a more sustainable society in their future.

Host Raj Daniels 05:05

That sounds beautiful. And speaking of academics, can you give the audience an overview of K12 Climate Action and your role at the organization?

Laura Schifter 05:14

We recently launched an initiative called K12 Climate Action. And our goal with K12 Climate Action is to unlock the power of the education sector to be a force towards climate action solutions and environmental justice. 

I think what we have really seen is that the education sector has not been very vocal and its role to address climate change. And likewise, large scale climate solutions haven’t really considered the role that education can play. But there’s both a large need and a big opportunity. There’s a large need because our education sector is a large public sector with a considerable environmental footprint. Our public schools are the largest consumers of energy and public sector buildings, the school bus fleet, with 480,000 buses is larger than all municipal fleets across the country. And schools serve over 7 billion meals annually. So there’s a sizable environmental footprint. 

There’s also a lot of need around adaptation. I think one of the things that we’ve seen with COVID is that our schools and our communities are not very well prepared to deal with disruptions to our school system and learning. And yet, we know that climate impacts are going to increasingly cause disruptions for schools as well. So we really need to be thinking about how we adapt and prepare schools more for climate change. But there’s also a large opportunity. Education has been identified as a critical social tipping point, for actually moving society to address climate change. 

And with over 50 million children in public schools, that’s nearly one in every six Americans in our public schools, that as we consider needs around mitigation and adaptation, we actually have a real opportunity to help educate, and support teaching and learning so that children and youth can develop the skills that they need to advance a more sustainable society in their future. So what we’re really working to do with K12 Climate Action is to learn more about the needs and opportunities to engage the education sector in this work.

We’ve launched a commission with a lot of experts in the field of education and the environment field, policymakers to come together around an action plan to support our education sector and moving towards climate action solutions and environmental justice.

Host Raj Daniels 08:04

Now, you mentioned 50 million schoolchildren. I had the pleasure a few months ago, interviewing Glenn Branch, he’s the Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education. And he enlightened me by sharing that there are over 13,000 school districts in America. And essentially, they all march to the beat of their own drum. What is the plan to get to these school districts and, you know, essentially find out what they’re doing and then influence them to adopt the K12 action plan?

Laura Schifter 08:43

The way that school districts and schools operate is there, there is a lot of local autonomy and local flexibility, but there are roles that different levers play so the school district has a critical role in determining certain decisions around things like curriculum in schools. The state also plays a critical role in determining things like state standards and setting expectations for what students should know and be able to do. States can also play a considerable role around funding things like infrastructure improvements in schools as well and set certain policies that help schools mitigate their environmental impact. 

Even though the federal government’s role in education is smaller than the state and local role, the federal government also plays a critical role as well. And the role that the federal government plays is usually geared towards helping advance equity in schools and providing supports for those students who are furthest behind. And those levers can also really be used in this context. There’s also I think, real opportunity in the thinking about the federal role right now for schools. And thinking about the transition to a Biden Harris administration, an opportunity to help support schools in this work, I think there’s been a lot of talk about the Biden Harris administration investing in infrastructure across the country. And if you’re investing in infrastructure improvements in schools, you can actually use this as an opportunity to install things like solar, and really help schools move closer to net zero energy consumption, which has a lot of benefits then for school districts locally, because it helps ensure that funding for school districts is going more towards teaching and learning in the classroom, rather than on things like energy costs, which currently energy costs are the second highest cost for school districts behind salaries. So it’s a sizable cost. 

So I think in using all these different levers, it’s thinking strategically about how you can best support schools in this work and, and really thinking about too, I think there’s going to be a lot of receptivity among schools and school districts and doing this work, in large part because children and youth in these school districts have shown that there’s a large desire to move towards climate action. So if you get the people in the building wanting to move in this way, there should be a lot of opportunity to engage people in this work.

Host Raj Daniels 11:41

So you mentioned mitigation a couple of times, can you give an example or a couple of examples of mitigation? And you also, you also mentioned net zero? Are there any schools out there right now that are actually net zero?

Laura Schifter 11:52

So first, thinking about mitigation in schools, thinking about energy and infrastructure, within school systems is a huge component of thinking about mitigation in schools. I mean, as I said, energy is the second-highest cost for school districts. So actually thinking about supporting schools in retrofits to become more efficient, and of course, healthy as well. So maintaining a focus on healthy learning environments for children. But thinking about ways to first become more efficient, and then also utilize things like renewable energy in schools, there’s huge potential. 

There’s a school district that recently adopted solar panels in Arkansas. And actually, they’re using the savings that they’re making from the energy costs and trips and transferring that money to actually be teacher raises. So there’s benefits both in terms of the environment on mitigation in that component, as well as for the teachers in the school district. 

Other issues on mitigation, I think thinking about transportation, and actually ensuring that we have clean transportation and transitioning diesel buses to electric buses is a huge opportunity for school. 

And thinking about food consumption in schools, another area where schools really need to think about mitigation. You have the procurement of food, so our schools, our schools getting their food locally, or sustainable food, you have kind of the decisions around what is being eaten in the cafeteria, and what impact that has. And then there’s also thinking about what you do with the food waste. And there are steps that you can take to reduce the environmental impact of each of those along the way. 

And then to your last question about net-zero schools, there are several net-zero schools, I believe we just released a state policy landscape that looked at some of these issues across states. I believe 11 states currently have net-zero schools in their state. There is a net-zero school actually here in Arlington, Virginia. It’s called Discovery Elementary. And they use a combination of solar geothermal building design, to actually be net-zero, and the amount that the school district saves covers the cost of two starting teacher salaries in the district. So it actually has a big impact then for the school district itself.

Host Raj Daniels 14:47

Speaking of teachers, I have a third-grader, fifth-grader, and seventh grader, and I can’t tell you that any one of them has come home and said you know, today we’re learning about climate change in school. How do we get the messaging down into the curriculum to the teachers?

Laura Schifter 15:03

So I think the most important thing to help teachers in the classroom with thinking about teaching climate change is to look to the best practices that are occurring. So there are teachers and students that are actually engaged in this work all across the country right now. And I think one of the things that we’re trying to do through K12 Climate Action is trying to elevate and share the best practices that are occurring. 

There’s a lot of research that’s been done about teaching climate change in the science curriculum for instance, and how to best support schools and teachers in that work. And several states actually have state standards that do teach climate change through the science curriculum. But there’s a lot less that’s going on out there and thinking about how to teach climate change across the curriculum. And one place that they’ve done really well is actually New Jersey, and New Jersey, just this summer adopted cross-curricular state standards that address climate change. So it provides supports for teachers and thinking about what students should know, in English class, how to engage students in conversations about climate change in English class or in social studies. So thinking about it more broadly.

Host Raj Daniels 16:29

I think the social studies pieces very important. Can you elaborate on that, please?

Laura Schifter 16:34

Yeah, so I believe there are five states across the country right now that currently do include climate change in their social studies, standards. And one of those things that really helps students do is they’re learning about the impacts of climate change on things like government or the impact of climate change on the economy. And thinking about it broader than just the science behind climate change. It’s actually thinking about the impact of climate change on society. And really helping students think about how climate change has these bigger societal impacts, and what it is that we need to do as a society to actually address and approach climate change.

Host Raj Daniels 17:21

Now, if there are parents like myself listening, how can we get involved? What can we do to perhaps help share the message?

Laura Schifter 17:29

So one of the things that would be great to do is, we want to learn more about some of that great work that’s going on across the country. So we’d love to have parents or educators or students come to k12climateaction.org and tell us what their schools are doing or tell us what they think schools should be doing on this work, we really want to build into this action plan input from people’s experiences across the country. So we’d love to hear more about what is currently going on across the country.

Host Raj Daniels 18:03

Now, does the K12 Climate Action Plan also address jobs or future jobs in the sector?

Laura Schifter 18:09

Yeah, so you know, one of the things that our education system does is is a component of that is a career and technical education. And one area that we recently looked at was how career and technical education programs are currently preparing children and youth for jobs in environmental sustainability and clean energy. And there’s a considerable amount of variability across the country, for how career and technical education programs are preparing students currently. One of the things that we’re learning about through K12 Climate Action is how career and technical education programs can better support students in being prepared for green jobs in the future.

The climate impacts that we’ve seen don’t discriminate about where they’re impacting people based on party lines.

Host Raj Daniels 19:00

So recently, we’ve been engaging with quite a few universities, through our show, speaking with professors that are teaching perhaps environmental science or engineering, because what we’ve done or what I’ve tried to do, very consciously, with the show, is covered different industries, topics, segments, you know, in the broader climate change or cleantech area sectors, because we want to perhaps highlight different entry points for students that can engage from a career perspective.

Laura Schifter 19:31

Yeah, and I think that that there are components that can be built into K12 education as well to help students do that. When we think about the jobs that are going to need a different perspective for environmental sustainability, I think it’s things like engineering and some of those clean energy jobs like solar technicians or solar installers or wind turbine technicians. But there’s also going to be a huge need for a different mindset on sustainability for people in traditional business, and for people in politics. So really thinking about what are those skills and those mindsets that people will need to have in the future, about humans impact on the environment, it’s really going to be cross-cutting, and we need to ensure that our schools are providing students with those skills so that whatever field they end up in, in the future, they will have a sustainability mindset.

If we can get break down some of those barriers and move past some of the debates and really start to see what the opportunities are for people, it will help build a bridge.

Host Raj Daniels 20:38

And you mentioned politics and the reason Biden Harris, when there’s a lot of both emotions right now post-election. How do you share this message, removing it from politics?

Laura Schifter 20:53

Well, you know, I think there’s a lot at stake for people all across the country. In thinking about these issues, as we think about things like mitigation, for instance, and, and supporting schools towards reducing their environmental footprint, that that benefits taxpayer dollars, it benefits taxpayers, it makes sure that local taxes are going to schools to support teaching and learning, which is better for everyone, especially when we’re facing the likelihood of real economic shortfalls for our school districts in the years to come. Actually thinking about how to use those, those dollars more effectively, to support teaching and learning can have benefits for everyone. 

I also think, really thinking about these issues around adaptation are going to be critical for people across the country. The climate impacts that we’ve seen don’t discriminate about where they’re impacting people based on party lines. And I think thinking about how to better equip our school systems to be more resilient in preparation for climate impacts is going to be critical for everyone. 

And I also think thinking about the jobs of the future and thinking about what our next-generation workforce really needs. A lot of people want to make sure that the US remains competitive, that our children are able to access good-paying jobs, and actually having a mindset around sustainability is going to help them do that. And so I think if we try and step back from politics, and really think about the benefits of supporting our schools and doing this work, there’s an opportunity to bring more people in.

Host Raj Daniels 22:47

I strongly agree with you. There’s a big opportunity. I think there’s room for everyone.

Laura Schifter 22:54

If we can get break down some of those barriers and move past some of the debates and really start to see what the opportunities are for people, it will help build a bridge.

Host Raj Daniels 23:08

Yes, it will. So now we’re getting to the crux of our conversation, the why behind what you do. Early in the conversation, you mentioned dyslexia, but you know, looking at your LinkedIn profile, Harvard graduate, so obviously didn’t hold you back. But now, you’re here running K12 Climate Action Plan. What’s your why, what motivated you to come on board for this program?

Laura Schifter 23:36

Most of my background has been in education. It’s been in education policy, and specifically special education. That was my area of focus for a long time. And then, when the IPCC came out with their report on 1.5 degrees warming and the media kind of splashed that out a little bit more. That was the first time I think it really hit me how critical these issues were. And I know there are so many people across the country who have been saying the same stuff for years. And I maybe came to this a little bit later. But that was when it hit me in the face, how important the issue was. 

I remember just sitting down with my husband that night. And he’s been, you know, arguing for a long time that I really need to think more about these issues and focus on it. And I just remember sitting down with him and he was just, you know, oh, finally, Laura, you understand? And that moment of clarity just made me feel like for me to feel like my work is purposeful, I knew I had to do something on these issues. 

I started researching different environmental organizations, trying to figure out how I could lend myself to this work. And actually, the opportunity kind of clicked for me when Jay Inslee announced he was running for president. And he said, on day one, he would ask every department to submit their plan to address climate change. And it hit me, the Department of Education, we don’t really have a plan to address climate change. I work with all these people in the education policy space, and we don’t really talk about it enough. But there is a really big need and an opportunity to push schools in this work. So maybe this is a way that I can get involved. Maybe I can start facilitating some conversations with the people that I work with, and see if we can try and bring people together and mobilize people to recognize that education both has a responsibility to move towards climate action, and also see education as a key pillar as a climate solution. 

And so over the next year and a half, I really started just talking to a lot of different people, learning more about where this work is already occurring in the country, learning more about different stakeholders in this space, and started connecting further with the Aspen Institute to think about that and build out this plan. I’ve been working on it for almost two years, in thinking about this plan, and it’s really exciting to see, you know, how far we’ve been able to come and the number of times since this was just an idea. But we also still have a long way to go to really help ensure that our 98,000 public schools are true models of sustainability.

Host Raj Daniels 27:11

Well, two years into it, what is the most what are some of the most valuable lessons that you would say you’ve learned about yourself in the journey?

Laura Schifter 27:19

I think, certainly, one valuable lesson is to not give up. I feel like with this path, a lot of it took a lot of meetings and conversations and, and trying to talk to different people and float a concept, get feedback, integrate it. And there are certain points where I feel like you think that you’ve run out of people to talk to, because you have so many different meetings and conversations, but then there’s always that next person to talk to. So I think it’s sometimes just continuing to kind of persevere even though you might have a lot of ups and downs on the journey, and you might have people that don’t respond or, or maybe give you feedback that’s critical. And it’s figuring out how to kind of make the most of that to push a concept and an idea forward and keep figuring out ways to learn from the feedback that you’re getting and kind of move things forward. 

That perseverance has been tough, especially since a lot of my background has been more in the education side of things. And I’ve had a very steep learning curve on the environmental side of things. But it’s just to continue to keep learning and learning from different people along the way.

Host Raj Daniels 28:48

Well, as a parent, I appreciate your perseverance. Now, I know it’s a relatively new organization. But let’s move into the future. Let’s say it’s 2030. magic wand. What does the future hold for K12 Climate Action? What does it look like? What have you accomplished?

Laura Schifter 29:09

What I would really like to see accomplished that far out are some real policy changes across the country to help support our schools towards sustainability. So kind of across all of those buckets, right now, I believe it’s a little over 5% of schools use solar, by 2030. I think 100% of schools that can use solar, I think should be using solar at that point. I think it’s really pushing more schools so that every state across this country has a net-zero school, if not multiple by 2030. I think it’s making significant headway if not complete headway and transitioning school buses to electric. 

I also think it’s ensuring that students are learning about climate change across the curriculum. I think one of the things I said is one state right now has standards that address climate change across the curriculum, New Jersey. And by 2030, it would be great to see a lot more states have those standards if not all of those states have those standards. And that teachers are prepared and supported and help teaching the content across the curriculum, I think there’s just so much potential for how far we can go on this. And given how engaged and excited youth are, I think it’s really critical that we make this push in schools to help support and provide the opportunity for youth to help lead us to solutions.

Host Raj Daniels 30:55

Well I for one, look forward to seeing your vision come to fruition. If you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?

Laura Schifter 31:15

I think one thing I would say is that is to recognize that frequently, there’s not really an entirely new concept. I think there’s somebody who’s quoted and saying, there’s nothing new under the sun. And, to some degree, that’s true. So I think when you have new ideas, and you have new things that you think you’re working on, it’s important to approach these things humbly and really look to the fact that even if it might be a new concept to you, you might actually be building on work that’s already done. And by thinking about things with a new perspective, you might help take something in a different direction. But it’s really recognizing that a lot of concepts are already out there. So thinking about how you can build on what is out there to add fresh perspective as you take something forward. And really think about where your value add can be. Approach things with a humble, yet forward-looking perspective.


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