Energy industry shapes lessons in public schools

In the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Gequetta Bright Laney taught public high school students this spring about a subject of keen interest to the region’s biggest employer: the economics of coal mining.

“Where there’s coal, there’s opportunity,” Bright Laney told her class at Coeburn High School in Wise County.

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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.

Jeff Perry, the Wise County superintendent, gave teachers permission to apply for the grants.

“With our ever-dwindling revenue, we’re very appreciative of the coal industry’s contribution,” Perry said. “They’re providing opportunities for teachers that would otherwise never exist.”

The school system and the coal industry have honored Bright Laney’s work. She was named CEDAR’s state teacher of the year in 2006 and 2009, winning a $1,000 award each time. Last year, the Interstate Mining Compact Commission named her its national teacher of the year, showering her with free educational products.

For her economics unit, Bright Laney won a $313 grant from CEDAR in addition to materials such as posters, books and videos about the coal industry. In one lesson, she asked students to “mine” chocolate chips out of cookies, awarding credit to those with the most chips. In another, the class played a game of Monopoly adapted to the topic, with properties renamed after mining camps.

Even though the grant was funded by the industry, she said, no bias entered into her teaching. She included a lesson on the rehabilitation of land after coal mining operations have stopped.

Dozens of other teachers applied for the CEDAR grants, pitching lesson plans with catchy titles. One was called “Dear Cole: Letters to a Coal Advice Columnist.” The organization has awarded about $550,000 in grants over 17 years and has given several hundred thousand dollars more in cash prizes for teachers and students.

CEDAR also offers a video to teachers called “The Greening of Planet Earth,” which says that “our world is deficient in carbon dioxide, and a doubling of atmospheric CO2 is very beneficial.” Mainstream scientists widely dispute that assertion.

CEDAR began offering grants to Wise teachers in 2005, the year after a boulder rolled off a local mining site, crushing and killing a 3-year-old boy named Jeremy Davidson in his family’s double-wide trailer. The incident helped galvanize local opposition to the coal industry just before the county began debating a new 1,200-acre coal mine. It is awaiting approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In the midst of that debate, CEDAR has expanded outreach in southwestern Virginia classrooms. Education analysts say such industry contributions to schools are not uncommon in energy-rich communities where mining or drilling projects draw controversy.

“These are places where industries wield significant power over politics and over education. They have clear agendas, but it can be hard for a superintendent to resist them,” said Alex Molnar, an expert on commercialism in education at the National Education Policy Center, affiliated with the University of Colorado.

In West Virginia’s northern panhandle, where natural gas discoveries have invigorated the local economy — and raised environmental concerns — another effort to influence the school curriculum is afoot. The West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association has held training sessions for public school teachers, distributing coloring books and other materials in a number of schools.

The association’s lesson texts are developed in large part to alleviate concerns about hydraulic fracturing, a technique also known as fracking, used to extract natural gas. A number of environmental groups say that process contaminates water.

“These kids are watching movies and reading things about how fracking is bad. We want them to know that it’s not all bad — that it’s a chance for our country to be energy independent,” said Corky DeMarco, the association’s executive director. “After all, it’s happening in their back yard.”

Where there are natural gas reserves, there are often organizations such as DeMarco’s. North Texas has the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council. Pennsylvania has the Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center. Louisiana has the Haynesville Shale Education Center. All are funded largely with industry dollars, and all seek ties with public schools.

The Foundation for Energy Education in Texas, funded by oil and gas companies, uses its “Playing With Petroleum” curriculum and mobile learning units to help students “understand the commitment of the oil industry to protecting the environment.” Pat French, the foundation’s president, said, “Teachers and principals welcome us with open arms.”

Not all of these education initiatives are targeted to resource-rich communities. Some attempt to improve a company or industry’s reputation after a man-made disaster. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, Exxon distributed a video to public schools across the country called “Scientists and the Alaska Oil Spill” about the efforts to clean up Prince William Sound.

Energy industry groups counter that environmentalists provide classroom materials all the time. The Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation produce information aimed at schoolchildren. Eco-SchoolsUSA, founded last year by the federation, distributes materials to 500 schools in the United States, adding 20 to 50 schools each month.

“The idea is to talk about our energy needs as well as concerns about pollution and global warming,” said Kevin Coyne, the federation’s vice president for education and training.

In Wise County, where the school system’s 6th annual coal fair was held last month, the relationship between industry and public education appears strong. Each year, more teachers apply for the coal industry’s grants.

“Everyone who sets a curriculum has an agenda,” Perry, the superintendent, said. “We try to make sure our people can separate what’s valid from what’s not.”

 
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