Her lessons, like others in dozens of public schools across the country, were approved and funded by the coal industry. Such efforts reflect a broader pattern of private-sector attempts to influence what gets taught in public schools.
Eager to burnish its reputation, the energy industry is spending significant sums of money on education in communities with sensitive coal, natural gas and oil exploration projects. The industry aims to teach students about its contributions to local economies and counter criticism from environmental groups.
These outreach efforts have drawn scrutiny after news in May that Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of children’s books, distributed fourth-grade curriculum materials funded by the American Coal Foundation. The “United States of Energy” lesson plan, which the foundation paid $300,000 to develop, went to 66,000 fourth-grade teachers in 2009. After critics raised questions about potential bias, Scholastic announced that it will no longer publish the material in question.
Environmentalists and public education groups say the Scholastic example highlights the increasingly cozy relationship between industry groups and public schools. They also criticize what takes place in classrooms such as Bright Laney’s, where industries fund lessons that echo their interests.
“We’re talking about catering our public school curriculum to those who can pay for it,” said Josh Golin, program manager at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, based in Boston. “It raises questions about the foundation of our public education system.”
Energy groups are not alone in seeking classroom clout. Other industries and organizations affiliated with various causes, including environmentalists, have long donated to public schools. The private sector spends billions of dollars on public education every year, experts say, money that often comes with significant conditions.
Industries such as information technology and aerospace have crafted lesson plans aimed at training future employees. Some have purchased advertising space on school Web sites and buses. In the Washington area, defense contractors have made donations to several school systems and sponsored school engineering clubs.
But critics say the energy industry often goes much further than the typical school donations. Groups with a stake in oil, gas or coal frequently train teachers and shape lesson plans on controversial subjects.
In the Appalachian mining communities of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, the Coal Education Development and Resources foundation, known as CEDAR, offers small grants to teachers whose lessons dovetail with its industry-driven mission.