E.P.A. Officials Sketch Out Roles for Public Schools

By Peter West — May 24, 1989 4 min read

Washington--Officials of the Environmental Protection Agency are sending clear signals that they see a role for public schools in tackling the environmental problems of the 1990’s and beyond.

But the question of whether that agency or the Education Department should be in charge of providing the means and impetus for greater school involvement could become a politically charged one as members of the Congress introduced an environmental-education bill late last week.

Thomas Parker, director of the epa’s office of cooperative environmental management, conceded at a conference here this month that plans for the agency to take a leadership role--now a feature of the proposed legislation--could spark a turf battle with the Education Department.

But Mr. Parker, who said the epa had not taken a position on the bill, emphasized in a speech at the meeting the agency’s desire to “greatly improve the public’s environmental understanding, awareness, and ability to participate in the decisionmaking process.”

His remarks followed publication, in the current issue of a leading science journal, of an essay by the epa’s administrator, William K. Reilly, citing the need for “school curricula that emphasize the global environmental dimension.”

At the meeting here of the Alliance for Environmental Education Inc., a Congressional aide who helped draft the proposed “national environmental education act of 1989" said he had specifically chosen the epa, rather than the Education Department, to lead federal efforts to create an “environmentally literate citizenry.”

The legislation, which would create an office of environmental education within the epa and establish a National Environmental Education Institute to train teachers, was introduced Friday on the floor of the Senate.(See Education Week, April 19, 1989.)

Jeff Peterson, the staff member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who drafted the bill, told members of the alliance that he felt “the basic mission of epa is more closely in tune” with the goals of the federal effort.

The alliance is an umbrella organization whose 40 member institutions include the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the National Science Teachers’ Association.

Mr. Peterson is a former epa staff member who tracked environmental issues for Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell before joining the committee’s staff. The proposed legislation, he said, would require the epa to cooperate with the Education Department “to assure effective coordination of programs.” It would also provide for a representative of the Secretary of Education to serve as an ex officio member of the proposed National Environmental Education Advisory Council.

He added, however, that in his view “the Education Department had a shot at environmental education for over 10 years [during the 1970’s] and struck out rather badly.”

Under the Environmental Education Act of 1970, which expired in 1981, the Department of Health, Ed4ucation, and Welfare shared responsibility for environmental education with the epa After the creation of the Education Department in 1979, the environmental-education function was meshed with a variety of other programs under the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981.

Senator Mitchell, as well as Senators Quentin N. Burdick, Democrat of North Dakota, and John H. Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, have agreed to sponsor the new legislation. At least 15 others have been tapped as co-sponsors, Mr Peterson said.

A spokesman for the Education Department said last week that the department was unfamiliar with the legislation and was therefore unprepared to comment.

At the aee’s annual meeting, Mr. Parker of the epa said that increasing the public’s awareness and understanding “is the very core of our environmental-education challenge.”

“The question,” he said, “becomes, ‘What is the environmental ethic we want [children] to have, and what is it that you and I must do during the decade of the 1990’s ... that will build the kind of behavior and understanding we want them to have?”’

With Mr. Parker’s assistance, the alliance and the epa have founded a National Network for Environmental Education, made up of postsecondary institutions and education-research centers, to disseminate curricula and other information to school districts and community organizations.

Sounding a theme similar to Mr. Parker’s, Mr. Reilly argues in the May/June issue of Science Books & Films, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that conservationist principles should be incorporated into the nation’s educational philosophy.

"[P]eople will not change their lifestyles to protect the environment until they understand the part they are playing in its degradation, and the part they can play in its improvement,” he writes. “In this regard, the nation’s educational system--especially through its science and socialscience curricula--could be of enormous help.”

Mr. Reilly also asserts that “school curricula that emphasize the global environmental dimension will give students a broader context in which to prepare for their careers.”

According to Mr. Parker, though the epa has not taken an official position, the proposed legislation has received “extremely positive” reaction during internal agency reviews. He also said, however, that “it is clear there will be issues such as location, either in epa or the Education Department” that will have to be resolved before the bill becomes law.

“It is absolutely critical,” he added, “that we think about how that legislation makes a difference at [the local level], where it’s supposed to make a difference, not just in Washington, D.C.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 1989 edition of Education Week as E.P.A. Officials Sketch Out Roles for Public Schools