Environmental Bill Seen Aiding Grassroots Efforts

By Peter West — May 31, 1989 4 min read

Washington--The new federal interest in spurring state and local programs in environmental education is coming at the right time, experts say, but it will need to be channeled into workable, long-range plans that do not duplicate past mistakes.

The call for conservation-related curricular materials has not been as loud since the heyday of environmental-action campaigns, they say, but many teachers remain uncertain of how to structure their efforts.

“The schools want to focus on it and there are really not any places for them to go and get help,” said Robert Howe, director of the Education Department’s eric Clearinghouse on Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education at Ohio State University.

Requests for materials on environmental issues last year reached the highest level seen since the late 1970’s, he said, and requests so far this year have already exceeded that.

Senator Quentin N. Burdick, Democrat of North Dakota, this month introduced a “national environmental education act” designed to encourage further state and local efforts to educate “environmentally literate citizens.”

The legislation would create an office of environmental education within the Environmental Protection Agency, at a cost of $15 million, to act as a catalyst for these efforts. Introduction of the bill is seen by some as marking the resurgence of an endeavor that has lain dormant since a similar federal measure expired in the early 1980’s.

Restoring ‘Federal Commitment’

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Burdick, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the bill would restore ''the federal government’s commitment to the environment, and to teaching new generations about our natural resources.”

“Education,” he said, “can bring environmental problems into better focus and establish a foundation on which to build long-term solutions.”

The bill enjoys wide support in the Senate. Among its more than 20 co-sponsors are Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine and Senator John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, the ranking minority member of the environment committee.

The list of sponsors also includes Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Paul Simon of Illinois, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, James Sasser of Tennessee, and Joseph Biden of Delaware.

“Those are good, strong, notable people,” said S. Douglas Miller, vice president of education for the National Wildlife Federation and a prime mover in the effort to reforge the national consensus represented by the Environmental Education Act of 1970.

“We’re trying to achieve the same strong sponsorship on the House side,” he said.

Although the measure takes a broad view of environmental education--one that includes postsecondary training as well as informal education--a number of its provisions directly affect schools. They include:

The establishment of an Environmental Education and Training Program at a postsecondary institution to develop a corps of environmentally sensitive educators.

A $5-million grants program for which both postsecondary and precollegiate institutions will be eligible.

The e.p.a. would be able to award matching grants of up to $100,000 to local education agencies to develop curricula, teaching aids, and instructional programs. Under the terms of the bill, 25 percent of the grants awarded would be under $5,000.

Establishment of a 15-member National Environmental Education Advisory Council on which a representative of the Secretary of Education would serve as ex officio member.

Membership would also include three representatives from primary and secondary education--the measure stipulates that at least one should be a “classroom teacher"--and three from state departments of edu8cation and natural resources.

An annual awards program designed to recognize an “outstanding career” in environmental education, teaching, or administration. This would be one of four awards specified in the bill and would be named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt.

Research and Funding

Environmental educators and other experts have raised questions, however, about how the legislation will avoid pitfalls that allowed the 1970 measure ultimately to expire.

According to Mr. Howe, the federal effort’s importance may lie in the fact that it can “leverage state and local funds by requiring some match” with local money. He pointed out that many of the environmental-education programs that came into being with the Environmental Education Act of 1970 subsequently failed because of an inadequate funding base.

“You’re building in support over time,” he said. “Often, once the federal money is gone, local people have not built in the money to sustain it. And they’re not all bad programs that get dropped.”

The legislation should also, he said, include provisions that require the collection of evaluation data for programs funded. Such a stipulation was not included in the 1970 act and may have contributed to its demise.

Others said they felt broader philosophical problems had to be ironed out if the legislation is to have any lasting impact on the grassroots movement of strong environmental-education programs building in the states.

“The concern I have about the legislation is that it does not define environmental education,” said David A. Kennedy, program administrator for curriculum in the Washington State department of public instruction.

Mr. Kennedy, who reviewed early drafts of the bill, said he is also concerned that the measure “deals with the natural environment and not the built environment.”

“Most people live in the urban areas and in the suburban areas, and my sense is that people have to know a little more about where they live,” said Mr. Kennedy. “If e.p.a. ignores the built environment, I think they’ve ignored half of the issue.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 1989 edition of Education Week as Environmental Bill Seen Aiding Grassroots Efforts