An ATP Transportation school bus in downtown Chicago. Districts like Chicago Public Schools that charters buses from private companies face challenges taking advantage of a federal incentive program. Credit: Mark D / Creative Commons

Chicago Public Schools and dozens of other Illinois school districts are being left out of a federal electric school bus program despite serving tens of thousands of low-income students in areas overburdened by fossil fuel pollution.

Applications for the first round of funding under the Clean School Bus Program are due today. Several districts didn’t qualify because of what some lawmakers, superintendents and advocates say are design flaws with the program.

The Clean School Bus Program, created by last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, makes $5 billion worth of rebates for electric and low-emissions buses and charging infrastructure available through 2026, with $2.5 billion earmarked specifically for electric buses and chargers. 

The program requires that each electric bus rebate directly replace a diesel bus, with the goal of getting aging diesel buses off the road. But many districts pay contractors to run their buses, and districts can’t get a rebate if they can’t persuade their contractors to scrap a bus or otherwise find a qualifying bus to replace. They also can’t qualify if they are transitioning from a contractor to owning their own fleet.  

The first round of funding will be allocated through a lottery among districts on a priority list for schools with more than 20% of students below the poverty line based on the census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimate. That’s a different data set than is used for determining need for free-and-reduced-price school lunches and other supports. Chicago Public Schools — with an enrollment of more than 330,000 and more low-income students than most districts nationwide — has 19.9% of students below that poverty line, hence the district doesn’t meet the 20% criteria, even though individual schools and parts of the district meet the threshold. 

“The model chosen by EPA prevents entire districts that have thousands of predominantly Black and Brown students below the poverty line from receiving priority treatment,” wrote U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky and a dozen other Illinois members of Congress in a June letter to the EPA. “CPS serves more low-income students (many of whom live in areas suffering from poor air quality) than the entire student body in many districts included on the priority list.” 

Illinois’s Climate & Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) passed last fall includes a carbon-free schools initiative that prioritizes school districts in East St. Louis and the southern Chicago suburbs of Harvey and Thornton. The East St. Louis and Harvey districts are on the EPA’s priority list for electric buses, but the Thornton one is not. 

The Harvey and Thornton districts are adjacent and in fact the Thornton Township High School is actually in the town of Harvey. In Harvey’s District 152, 99% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; in Thornton’s district 205, 64% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. 

“They serve basically the same community but Harvey is considered a priority district but Thornton is not,” said Mia Korinke, director of the Carbon Free Schools Initiative for Climate Jobs Illinois, a coalition of labor organizations focused on climate and energy policy. 

Durbin’s letter noted that the priority list also does not include the school district in Waukegan in northern Illinois, home to five Superfund sites and a recently closed coal plant. More than 60% of students in the high school are low-income and the student body is 79% Hispanic and 13% Black.   

Chasing buses 

East St. Louis School District 189 applied for 25 electric buses and charging stations to serve its students in a low-income, majority African-American district heavily affected by pollution from coal-fired power, oil refineries and other industry. Though the district doesn’t own its own buses, its bus contractor — Illinois Central — promised to meet scrappage requirements. 

“They identified specific buses that would be removed from the roads if our application is successful and assisted in gathering details required in the application,” said district communications and partnerships executive director Sydney Stigge-Kaufman. “Additionally, our local electrical company, Ameren, helped us assess what number of buses could be charged and supported at the site location based on current power. Each of our partners has been very willing to support our pursuit of an EV school fleet.” 

Other districts without their own fleet weren’t as lucky.   

Thirty school superintendents in the Chicago suburbs sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan outlining the problems and requesting changes in the scrappage requirement. 

Dr. Kimako Patterson, superintendent of one of the Chicago-area districts, wrote that superintendents and other leaders were “excitedly awaiting this program, seeing it as finally a chance to change the way our students are transported from diesel and other fossil fuels, to zero emission electric,” while also using it as a jump-start to owning their own bus fleets and creating jobs. 

“We were extraordinarily disappointed to be told that the program as rolled out to date would NOT accommodate those who are moving from contracting to owning buses, as for every electric bus sought we would be required to identify a bus to be scrapped in order to even apply for the lottery.” 

It is too late for changes in the first round of funding, but superintendents and advocates are asking for revisions in future rounds. However future funding opportunities are likely to be structured differently and offer less-generous subsidies, experts say. 

“EPA did create an exception to the scrappage requirement for school districts that own a bus but don’t own one that’s old enough — they allowed newer ones to be scrapped, sold or donated,” said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, and director of ELPC’s electric school bus campaign. “They could have put in an exception for schools switching from contracting to ownership — but they have not chosen to do that.” 

The EPA revised an earlier version of the plan to allow districts to replace a donated diesel bus in order to receive an electric bus. Mudd said this was an improvement, but it’s still difficult for districts to find such a donation. 

Patterson said the specific requirements for the replacement bus made the prospect especially hard, including mandates the bus have been driven three days per week for the past school year, and applicants provide detailed information on miles driven and type of fuel.   

“Adding the requirement of chasing a bus to scrap will use up valuable time of our transportation and finance officers, time already scarce due to the pandemic and regular school obligations,” wrote Patterson, who is chair of the Superintendents Commission for study of Demographics and Diversity, and Superintendent of Prairie-Hills Elementary District. 

The Inflation Reduction Act signed August 16 includes additional funding that could go to electric school buses, with $1 billion earmarked for the EPA Clean Heavy Duty Vehicle Program, which includes school buses; $400 million of that amount is designated for air quality nonattainment zones like Chicago and East St. Louis. It remains to be seen how exactly funding recipients will be chosen. The law also includes $40,000 tax breaks for investments in commercial heavy duty vehicles including electric buses. Entities like school districts that don’t pay taxes can receive the funds as direct payments. 

“We worked hard to make sure Class 6 vehicles, which can encompass school buses, are eligible” for the Inflation Reduction Act Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicles funds, said Jaron Goddard, a clean energy lawyer with the Energy & Climate Solutions group at law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Seattle, and former counsel and climate staffer for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. “Of course the program is not just for school buses, so eligible contractors and nonprofit school transportation associations will be competing with quite a few other eligible entities and vehicles.” 

Goddard added that this program only addresses the incremental cost between an electric and diesel bus, rather than the full cost of an electric bus. 

“At the same time, charging infrastructure is eligible here, so schools may want to look further into this program for those purposes,” Goddard said. “Overall, this program will take a little while for EPA to stand up, so the best bet for direct rebates and grants is still the Clean School Bus Program for the time being.”  

Adding solar to the mix 

A switch to electric school buses not only eliminates emissions that harm public health, it also plays a role in the state’s larger clean energy transition. Electric buses can serve as batteries on the grid and help utilities meet demand. 

Utilities ComEd and Ameren on July 1 filed beneficial electrification plans with the Illinois Commerce Commission that could help districts afford and manage charging stations. The commission has 270 days to act after the filing. 

“In the Ameren zone, they have been thoughtful about the before-the-meter work — grid upgrades, connecting chargers to the grid, making sure bus barns have capacity” for charging, Korinke said. “That’s something you really need your utility to help out with.” 

For electric buses to truly be clean, the electricity powering them needs to come from solar or wind. 

The state law CEJA also includes a well-funded program to help schools get solar on-site. The East St. Louis district is doing an energy audit funded by CEJA that includes exploring the potential for solar. The state’s main two teachers unions (AFT and IEA) are part of the coalition advocating for carbon-free schools, and Korinke said teachers are interested in adding solar and electric vehicles to curricula.   

Korinke said there was only one applicant for the school solar program when an application period opened shortly after the law was passed, but advocates are hoping to drum up awareness for future applications.

“A lot of schools don’t know these programs are available,” said Korinke. “The goal is to really make sure everyone in the school community including students can really benefit, and it becomes a holistic approach.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.