2024 Science, Technology and Environment

Karl Simon, Christine Koester, Matt Lakin and the Clean School Bus Team

Designed and implemented a program that funds new electric and cleaner-energy school buses, reducing pollution and improving air quality for children in low-income communities.

Each year, millions of children in the U.S. ride school buses powered by old, diesel-burning engines that emit harmful gases, exposing young people to pollutants linked to health issues that cause absences from school. 

Today, the retirement of these older, more heavily polluting vehicles is speeding up due to an innovative Environmental Protection Agency program that allows school districts in every state and U.S. territory to apply for funds to buy cleaner school buses—mostly electric, although propane and compressed natural gas buses are options—with low or no tailpipe emissions.  

With $5 billion from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the EPA’s Clean School Bus team, composed of staff members from across the agency and represented by Karl Simon, Christine Koester and Matt Lakin, worked with school districts and many public and private entities to get feedback on how to design a successful funding program. They then promoted it throughout the country to ensure communities had an opportunity to benefit from the program. The team held countless events and webinars and made phone calls to hundreds of school districts.  

Their work resulted in overwhelming demand for funds to replace polluting school buses, with applications coming in from every state and most territories. Within two years of its start, the Clean School Bus program awarded nearly $2 billion to more than 600 school districts in three rounds of funding, with a fourth round coming in 2024. New buses were on the road within a year of the program’s launch and continue to hit the streets. As a result, students are breathing better air and are less likely to miss school due to illness.  

It was remarkable how the team “stood up a pretty significant program in a relatively short amount of time and did it in such a way that it has attracted and made room for a huge amount of demand from school districts,” said Sue Gander, director of the Electric Bus Initiative at the World Resources Institute.  

Cleaner air for millions of children  

Nearly all the early money went to designated priority areas that included low-income, rural and tribal communities. The funds helped buy nearly 5,000 new buses that have the potential to improve air quality for about 8.5 million schoolchildren. 

Recognizing that many smaller school districts do not have the capacity to apply for federal funding, manage grants and meet reporting requirements, the team first created a rebate program. “Rebates are an effective way to get money out the door without the challenge of grants,” Koester said, especially if districts need to buy just one or two buses.  

In short order, the team developed a straightforward online application portal and set rebate amounts either to fully cover or substantially cover the cost of new buses and the charging structure for them. “We took a multipage, multiyear process and condensed it down to one page,” Simon said.  

The team is “an exemplar around the agency,” for creating a simple form, “with an eye always toward oversight and making sure that we can show that the money’s going where it needs to go,” said EPA’s Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe.  

Well-to-do areas, for example, receive less funding than do priority areas, enabling program money to stretch further.

Partnering to advance program goals  

The grant program allows larger school districts to use the federal money to buy between 15 and 50 buses and the charging infrastructure. Funding was also made available to fleet operators as well as to manufacturers who could apply on behalf of smaller school districts. 

The Clean School Bus program is designed to reduce subsidies with each funding round, giving manufacturers the message that the government will not support perpetually high costs. “We iterate as we’ve gotten smarter,” Simon said.  

The team also built a coalition with state and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, utilities, federal partners, transportation providers, bus manufacturers and others, to drive support and investment. 

One funding recipient expressed appreciation for what the new buses represent. Gilbert Rosas Jr., with Modesto City Schools in California, said, “The electric buses are “a symbol of hope” for disadvantaged communities,” he said. “This work is critical,” he added. “We wouldn’t have the money to do it all on our own.” 

EPA’s Lakin, who has memories of breathing diesel fumes in his school bus as a kid, said, “There’s nothing more exciting as a public servant than to know kids are not going to be breathing air like I did.” 

A program that improves public health and children’s well-being “is public service at its best,” McCabe said. “They just are an outstanding team.”