Education Funding

Critics Accuse NSTA of Having Conflict Over Film

By Sean Cavanagh — December 01, 2006 8 min read
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A prominent science educators’ group has drawn the wrath of supporters of “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore’s film about global warming, as well as some of its own members, by turning down a request that it distribute 50,000 free copies of the movie.

Controversy is swirling over a science education group's handling of this Al Gore film.

The decision by the National Science Teachers Association to reject the offer from the documentary’s makers prompted one of the producers to question the organization’s motives. She noted that the NSTA has received contributions from oil companies that have disputed some assertions about climate change.

Association officials said they rebuffed the proposal for distribution of DVD copies of the film to NSTA members because such a move would have violated the group’s policy against endorsing outside organizations’ products and messages.

But producer Laurie David suggested that the NSTA may have been motivated by fear of alienating corporate donors. She cited an internal e-mail communication from the association in which the science group said distributing the film would place “unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters.”

Ms. David raised those issues in a biting Nov. 26 commentary in The Washington Post, pointing in particular to contributions to the NSTA from the foundation of the ExxonMobil Corp. “That’s the same ExxonMobil that for more than a decade has done everything possible to muddle public understanding of global warming and stifle any serious effort to solve it,” she wrote.

Days later, Mr. Gore personally criticized the NSTA in an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

As the controversy grew, the NSTA’s 13-member board of directors held a conference call Nov. 29 in which it unanimously voted to stand by the policy not to distribute an outside group’s products, said Gerald F. Wheeler, the association’s executive director. The board also voted to reiterate and expand the offer Mr. Wheeler said the organization had already made to the filmmakers to make NSTA members aware of “An Inconvenient Truth” through options other than direct distribution.

Ms. David is a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, and the founder of StopGlobalWarming.org. In a statement issued to Education Week through the council, Ms. David said the controversy is “not about a DVD.”

“It’s about putting science education on the auction block,” she said.

Ms. David said in an interview that she would reject the alternatives proposed by the NSTA. Those alternatives, she said, did not give her as much certainty that copies of the film would reach science teachers. She said she was likely to pursue other distribution options, which she expected to announce this week.

Angry Members

The NSTA’s stance has drawn a strong reaction from some of the Arlington, Va.-based association’s 56,000 members. President-elect John Whitsett said he had received at least 500 e-mails from teachers, arguing that the association should have either distributed the film or not accepted corporate funding.

“Many of our members are very angry,” said Mr. Whitsett, a curriculum- and instructional-support administrator in the 7,600-student Fond du Lac, Wis., district.

Mr. Whitsett nonetheless believes NSTA officials made the right call. Corporations—including oil companies—have provided vital financial support for some of the organization’s most successful educational programs, he said. NSTA officials closely monitor contributions to make sure they do not influence classroom resources provided to science teachers, he said.

“That’s the piece that is absolutely ironclad,” Mr. Whitsett said. “The money is controlled by NSTA, and the projects are controlled by NSTA.”

One teacher who agrees with Ms. David is John Borowski, a biology and environmental science teacher in the 40,000-student Salem-Keizer school district in Oregon. Mr. Borowski, who has been sharply critical of the NSTA’s past acceptance of corporate funding, said it was “totally spineless” for the organization to reject the filmmakers’ offer.

“They could have distributed it with a straightforward disclaimer” saying the movie’s views were not NSTA’s, Mr. Borowski said. “Climate change may be the paramount issue facing us.”

Internal E-Mail

The NSTA has received $6 million over the past decade from ExxonMobil’s foundation, Ms. David noted in her newspaper piece, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday opinion section.

The money has supported the NSTA’s Building a Presence for Science program, an effort that centers on identifying a “point of contact,” usually a science teacher, in schools. “Not once has ExxonMobil asked to use this network for their purpose,” NSTA officials said in a Nov. 28 statement.

The NSTA has also secured funding from the Shell Oil Co., based in Houston, and from the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based advocacy organization for the oil industry—though NSTA officials said that partnership with the API ended five years ago.

Sixteen percent of the NSTA’s $22 million annual budget comes from corporate donors, and roughly 4 percent comes from energy companies, according to Mr. Wheeler. The rest is underwritten by membership dues—$74 a year for experienced teachers—and publications sales, convention revenue, and other sources, he said.

NSTA officials said that in fiscal 2006 they also received corporate backing from Phillips Petroleum, the electronics manufacturer Toshiba Corp., the Dow Chemical Co., the educational publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and the auto insurer GEICO, among others.

Critics have long accused ExxonMobil, a major oil and gas producer in Irving, Texas, and other oil companies of downplaying the impact that human activity and industry have on global warming. ExxonMobil officials dismiss such criticism; the company recognizes the harmful effects of greenhouse emissions and supports attempts to control them, particularly through advances in technology, said a company spokesman, Dave J. Gardner.

“An Inconvenient Truth,” which opened in May, has taken in about $24 million at the U.S. box office and $11 million internationally. The film, released on DVD last month, chronicles the efforts by Mr. Gore to raise public awareness about global warming and discusses the implications of rising temperatures on the environment and society. He was the Democratic nominee for president in 2000 and is seen as a possible contender in 2008.

Mr. Wheeler said the reference to the “capital campaign” in an e-mail to the film’s supporters came about because an NSTA publications employee had solicited input about the filmmakers’ request from other employees, including the organization’s marketing and development staff. One employee, in an internal e-mail exchange, mentioned the potential impact on NSTA fundraising; that comment was mistakenly included in the e-mail response to the film’s supporters, Mr. Wheeler said.

Though he said the NSTA “didn’t do a good job” of explaining its reasoning, Mr. Wheeler dismissed the idea that his organization had been swayed by funders’ views on global warming.

“People were disappointed because they thought we had a conflict of interest,” Mr. Wheeler said of NSTA members’ reactions, “but we don’t have a conflict of interest.”

“We follow the scientific line [on global warming],” he said.

The NSTA does not have an official position statement on global warming; the organization typically takes positions only on issues directly affecting science education, not about science itself, spokeswoman Jodi Peterson said. When the organization last year released a statement defending the teaching of evolution, for instance, it did so because the issue directly concerned education, she said. Classroom treatment of the theory of evolution has been the subject of policy debates and court cases in recent years.

The NSTA does not produce or endorse specific science curricula. It seeks to help teachers through publications and classroom materials, professional development, conferences, and other means.

Mr. Wheeler said his organization had repeatedly presented alternatives to Ms. David, instead of having the NSTA distribute the movie directly, but the filmmakers had rejected those options.

The NSTA offered to provide a link to information about the film on its Web site, which draws an estimated 2 million page views per month, Mr. Wheeler said. The association also suggested mentioning the film in a weekly e-mail message, which reaches 250,000 members, he said. In addition, the NSTA has offered to sell the filmmakers a mailing list of its members, an option other organizations have pursued, he said.

Collectively, those options would exceed the publicity the filmmakers could receive through a direct NSTA distribution “by a factor of ten,” Mr. Wheeler argued. The NSTA official also said the organization would invite Mr. Gore to speak at the organization’s annual meeting next year in St. Louis.

Mr. Whitsett, the NSTA president-elect, said the board might review its policies on outside funders at a February meeting. But he noted that the NSTA’s position on distributing materials for outside organizations had remained firm, despite an estimated 200 to 300 such requests per year.

‘Happy to Distribute It’

Wayne Carley, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Biology Teachers, which has 7,500 members, said NSTA officials’ concerns about aligning themselves with a specific message were overblown.

“My immediate reaction is, I’d like to get 7,500 free [DVDs] to send to my members,” said Mr. Carley, who noted that his organization competes but also collaborates with the NSTA. “If something is of educational value—and that film absolutely is—we’d be happy to distribute it.”

Mr. Carley did not fault the NSTA, however, for taking contributions from oil companies or other corporations. He said his organization, which has an annual budget of $1.2 million, receives about 1 percent of its revenue from private companies, and he wishes it could attract larger donors.

“There’s no problem with accepting that money,” he said, “as long as there are no strings attached.”

But Brad Shipp, the national field director for the advocacy group Students for Academic Freedom, said that if the NSTA had distributed Mr. Gore’s film, it might have sent an implicit message of approval to teachers. His Los Angeles-based group’s goal is to remove bias—often targeting what it sees as liberal bias—from K-12 and college teaching.

Had the NSTA mailed out the DVDs, Mr. Shipp said, it is possible that political conservatives would have accused the organization of partisanship, given Mr. Gore’s association with the film.

“He’s a politician,” Mr. Shipp said. “We should not have a politician dictating what we should be teaching.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Critics Accuse NSTA of Having Conflict Over Film

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