Washington--Federal lawmakers are poised to put environmental education back on the federal agenda, where it enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1970’s.
Legislation soon to be introduced will also test, some observers said, President Bush’s campaign claims to be both “the education President” and a “conservationist.”
Senator Quentin N. Burdick, Democrat of North Dakota, has been tapped to sponsor the Environmental Education Act of 1989, a measure that would charge the Environmental Protection Agency with the job of carrying out federal efforts to produce an “environmentally literate citizenry.”
Although Senator Burdick is not expected to introduce his bill until next month, those who have seen early drafts said it proposes to establish an Office of Environmental Education within the epa to act as a federal clearinghouse for exemplary state and local programs.
“It’s a federal initiative to support existing local initiatives,” according to one observer.
A spokesman for the Senator said that “it’s very likely” that Senator John H. Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, will co-sponsor the measure when it is introduced in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Environmentalists and educators who have seen the draft bill said they were pleased that it would encompass not only “formal” precollegiate curricula, but also programs targeted at the general public.
“It’s an extremely important and timely step in this nation’s efforts to improve the quality of our environment through education,” said Steven Kussman, president-elect of the Alliance for Environmental Education Inc., a nonprofit umbrella organization whose more than 35 members include the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the National Science Teachers Association.
Hank Schilling, director of the epa’s office of legislative analysis, said the version of the 19-page measure that he had reviewed would also establish a National Environmental Education Institute, permit the e.p.a. to disburse grants in support of environmental education, internships, and awards, and establish an Advisory Council on Environmental Education.
The bill would finance the new programs by using a portion of the fines epa levies against polluters. The annual budget to maintain all the programs contained in the bill is estimated at $15 million.
Although the e.p.a. has reviewed the legislation, it has yet to take a position on the matter, according to Mr. Schilling. “We’ve got a draft and we expect to hold a staff meeting sometime soon to talk about it,” he said.
The provisions of the bill as described by Mr. Schilling and others closely follow a series of recommendations contained in a “Blueprint for the Environment,” which was drafted last year by a national coalition of groups, ranging from the Defenders of Wildlife to Zero Population Growth, that represent a collective membership of more than 6 million.
That document, which was produced specifically to present to the President following the November election, contains more than 700 proposals for combatting environmental degradation, including more than 20 that target education. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1989.)
The “Blueprint” proposed that responsibility for federal environmental-education efforts be placed primarily within the Education Department.
But the draft bill locates that responsibility within the e.p.a., sources said, in part because William K. Reilly, the agency’s administrator, has espoused a philosophy of prevention rather than punishment to solve environmental problems.
But proponents of the measure also feared that its programs would disappear in what one observer termed the bureaucratic “black hole” of the Education Department.
The measure does, however, call on the epa to work jointly with the department through an existing federal interagency committee on environmental education.
Environmentalists characterized the bill as a “mom and apple pie issue” unlikely to face major opposition. But one observer noted that the measure is also important because it will test Mr. Bush’s commitment to preserve the environment.
“The real issue underlying this is what is our country going to do to deal with the long-term environmental issues that we face,” the observer said. “This is going to galvanize a lot of attention out there.”
Pendulum Swinging Back
The current climate of interest in the federal role echoes, for environmentalists, that of two decades ago.
Six months after “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970, when thousands of demonstrators across the country gathered to express concern over air and water pollution, President Nixon signed into law the Environmental Education Act of 1970.
The law charged the epa and the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare with expanding environmental awareness. But federal funding for those programs was sporadic at best.
Moreover, classroom teachers and educators generally were unprepared, environmentalists say, for the task of teaching about problems that were unfamiliar and more complex than most people supposed.
“It was a bit like a new army moving into a battlefield it didn’t know too well,” said Mr. Kussman of the environmental-education alliance. “The field itself had developed as a sort of spin-off of science.”
And when the law expired in 1981, the office coordinating environmental programs within the Education Department was abolished and the programs were subsumed under the Education Consolidation Improvement Act.
But even as the federal efforts dwindled and the general public re8mained uninterested, local environmental-education programs in such states as California, Pennsylvania, and New York prospered, their champions say. In 1985, the epa also signaled some renewed federal interest by appointing regional coordinators for environmental education.
And this year, when concerns about depletion of the ozone layer, the use of toxic pesticides, ocean dumping of wastes, the burning of the earth’s irreplaceable rainforests, and the largest oil spill in American history are making headlines, those involved with environmental issues say the time is ripe to press their cause. “The pendulum has been swinging back,” Mr. Kussman said.
Experts in the field said the epa now could move to the forefront of the rejuvenated national movement to educate about the environment, through its assigned role in Senator Burdick’s bill and its participation in a new national network being fashioned by Mr. Kussman’s group.
The National Network for Environmental Education, as the effort has been dubbed, is adapting an idea developed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The result of three years of planning, it is to be launched next month by the Alliance for Environmental Education in cooperation with the epa
As envisioned by participants, the network is to be a loose-knit compact of more than 50 colleges and universities, environmental-education centers, and other agencies in six geographic regions.
Its goals are to provide preservice and inservice teacher-training programs, as well as a variety of locally tailored educational and research activities for communities.
The Tennessee Valley Authority program on which the network is modeled involves 14 centers at colleges and universities in seven states that coordinate activities to meet the “local needs” of school districts and communities.
The oldest of the t.v.a. centers was established in 1977 at Murray State University in Murray, Ky.
The center is supported by the university, the t.v.a., and membership fees from the 10 neighboring school districts that form the Western Kentucky Environmental Education Consortium.
Jennifer Lynn, assistant director of the university’s Center for Environmental Education, said it maintains a library of materials and a “mobile unit” to instruct teachers. The center also offers a series of workshops that teachers can take for college credit.
John R. Paulk, the originator of the t.v.a. model, is working with the e.p.a. to get the network off the ground. He said it will permit schools and other education groups to tap such resources as the National Park Service and the epa as well as the Education Department’s eric Clearinghouse on Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education at Ohio State University.
“The beauty of the network is that it allows you to start looking at those connections,” Mr. Paulk said.
Mr. Paulk said the network will espouse the philosophy of “infusion,” which calls for working environmental themes into the curriculum across the board. “What we’re not saying to overworked superintendents is ‘develop new programs’,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 1989 edition of Education Week as Bill Is Planned To Revive Study Of Environment