Healthy Schools: A Major Front in the Fight for Environmental Justice

By Neal, Daria E. | Environmental Law, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Healthy Schools: A Major Front in the Fight for Environmental Justice


Neal, Daria E., Environmental Law


  I. INTRODUCTION
 II. HOUSING DISCRIMINATION SET THE FOUNDATION FOR TOXIC SCHOOLS
     A. Toxic Neighborhoods Lead to Toxic Schools
III. HEALTH IMPACTS ON CHILDREN MUST BE A FACTOR IN SITING
  AND MAINTENANCE POLICIES
     A. Use of State Education Mandates as a Tool to Achieve
        Environmentally Healthy School Facilities
     B. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez
        Triggered State
        Constitutional Challenges to Property Tax Funding Schemes
     C. Demonstrating Disparate Facility Conditions Heightens
        Success When Seeking to Enforce Equality and Adequacy Standards
     D. School Siting." Ensuring New Schools Have a Healthy Start
     E. EPA Can Play an Effective Role By Aggressively Pursuing
        Enforcement Actions Against Regulated Facilities Near Schools
     F. Federal Action is Appropriate and Required
 IV. POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
  V. CONCLUSION.

I. INTRODUCTION

Public schools are under constant attack for "failing" America's children. Whether it is criticism of teachers, parents, or administrators, there seems to be a general malaise when it comes to the future of public schools. This can be attributed, in part, to the physical conditions of our schools. Many schools are in desperate need of repair, with lead paint, asbestos, pesticides, and poor ventilation systems prevalent in the nation's schools. Additionally, in an effort to build "better" schools in urban areas, new schools are often sited near polluting industrial facilities. Both scenarios negatively impact the health of children.

Environmental justice, at its very heart, is about the right of all people to live in environmentally healthy communities. Children spend the majority of their formative years in schools. If the schools are in poor condition or located near toxic facilities or on contaminated sites, the health and well being of their students are in jeopardy. A growing number of families are opting to send their children to private school for quality facilities as well as academics. Those that cannot afford the alternative are left to send their children to public schools that can and will make them sick. Because attending school is legally mandated, federal and state governments have a duty to ensure the environmental conditions in and surrounding schools do not negatively impact the health of students.

The environmental justice movement addresses a broad range of issues including transportation equity, fair housing, zoning regulations, and community planning. In the middle of each area of concern lies a school. Schools are located where people live, near roads, and near businesses, both industrial and commercial. The goal of environmental justice is to ensure equal protection of all people from environmental hazards and eliminate the disproportionate burden low-income and minority communities presently bear. We must look at the environmental health of our schools and develop aggressive and creative ways to ensure our children are sent to learn in facilities that do not threaten their lives. Furthermore, in recognition of continued systemic housing segregation, guaranteeing clean schools will have a ripple effect on the surrounding community.

The issue of dilapidated schools has become increasingly persuasive in school equity and school adequacy litigation. In this Article, equity and adequacy litigation will be analyzed for their effectiveness as tools for environmental justice. Although schools throughout the country suffer from unsatisfactory environmental conditions, according to a 1996 General Accounting Office report the largest number of such schools are in cities "serving 50 percent or more minority or 70 percent or more poor students." (l) Furthermore:

   [O]ver 38 percent of schools in central cities reported at least
   one inadequate building, 9 percentage points higher than schools
   located in the urban fringe of large cities. … 

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