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Critics Say Schools Preach Eco-Activism

Arizona schoolchildren inundate their local newspaper with letters opposing new home construction in the desert. Texas students sell T-shirts to help preserve the rain forests.

Environmental education or activism?

Conservative organizations and think tanks are saying it’s the latter. They’re demanding that educators return to basing lessons on science, not emotional environmental campaigns urging political action.

“I don’t mind saving the rain forests or endangered species,” said political scientist Michael Sanera, a leading critic of environmental education. “I want the kids to have their facts straight.”

He cites textbooks that he says distort population growth and global warming or give one-sided accounts of managing waste accumulation or protecting threatened species of plants and animals.

Environmental educators admit to isolated cases of teachers using poor materials or urging students to promote pet causes. But they insist that most materials used in schools are balanced.

“There are award-winning programs all over the country,” said Rick Wilke, associate dean and professor of environmental education at the University of WisconsinStevens Point. “Recent attacks on environmental education are overstated and politically motivated.”

Critics are demanding balance. From Wilke’s perspective, however, some conservative groups that failed to weaken environmental regulation in Congress and elsewhere are involved in a long-term campaign to quell environmental teaching.

Wilke is past president of the North American Association for Environmental Education, which will release new environmental teaching standards within two weeks. Reviewed by 1,000 educators and experts, the standards are to help teachers choose materials free of bias, scientifically accurate and with balanced viewpoints.

Next spring, the association is releasing guidelines on what fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders need to know to be “environmentally literate,” said Ed McCrea, the group’s executive director.

In Washington, a conservative science and public-policy research group, the George C. Marshall Institute, has appointed an independent commission to examine teaching materials and determine whether environmental issues are presented objectively.

What top environmental educators know and practice often differs from what goes on in many school classrooms, where teachers of the science sometimes aren’t even trained in it, said Jo Kwong, environmental researcher at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Busy, budget-strained teachers often grab whatever educational materials are available, some of which present a single viewpoint. Pupils might be taught that recycling is morally correct, for instance, without discussing the gasoline used and pollution caused by extra trucks needed to haul recyclables, Kwong said.

“They just say ‘Save things,”’ 11th-grader Tiffanie Cherry said at Washington’s Wilson High School. “It’s like if we don’t do this, or don’t do that, then the Earth is going to explode.”

Last year, 14-year-old Lacie Wooten and her friends at Stone Ridge High School in Bethesda, Md., boycotted McDonald’s restaurants after a teacher told them the hamburger chain decimated rain forests to make grazing land for cattle.

Wooten, who now goes to school in London, admitted that nobody thought to call McDonald’s, which issued this statement: “We do not, have not and will not purchase beef from rain forests or recently deforested rain forest land. Any supplier that is found to deviate from this policy, or that cannot prove compliance with it, will be immediately discontinued.”

Third-graders at the primary school in Mason, Texas, stopped an extracurricular project selling T-shirts to raise money to protect rain forests after a parent objected.

Bruce Lehmberg, a school board member whose third-grade daughter attends the school, complained that the project was only to further political agendas for environmental causes not supported by the community. “I’m not down on the school, but I don’t want our teachers or students used as pawns,” he said.

Project organizers had no intention to politicize the children, said David Younkman, an official of The Nature Conservancy, a co-sponsor. Instead, he said, the children involved themselves in “an issue they are clearly concerned about.”

Critic Sanera, who heads the conservative Claremont Institute’s Center for Environmental Education Research in Tucson, Ariz., said he has a file cabinet full of materials pushing strict environmentalist agendas and urging pupils to become politically active.

He mentioned a letter to a local newspaper from a second-grader at Canyon View Elementary School in Tucson protesting with his classmates that bulldozers were clearing space in the desert to build houses.

Pupil Blake Masters was worried about the loss of vegetation. “Pretty soon,” he wrote, “we won’t have enough oxygen to live on.”

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