Kids Caught in Crossfire of Climate Education Battle

New science standards require students be taught climate change as a scientific fact. They face resistance in several states from climate skeptics.

The Next Generation Science Standards require that students be taught that climate change is a scientific fact and mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. They have been adopted by 13 states and the District of Columbia, but face resistance in several states from climate skeptics on school boards and in legislatures. Credit: Virginia Guard Public Affairs, flickr

While President Barack Obama wants to protect young people from the catastrophic effects of global warming, school boards and lawmakers in some states are fighting to prevent students from learning the science of climate change.

In the most recent skirmish, parents and science educators in West Virginia blocked an attempt to weaken the teaching of climate change in elementary and secondary school classrooms. Responding to petitions and protests, the state Board of Education voted Jan. 14 to undo revisions to teaching guidelines that would have cast doubt on global warming and the reasons for it.

The West Virginia case is part of a long-running battle over the first set of national guidelines for science education to require that students be taught that climate change is a scientific fact and mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The guidelines, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, were developed by science-education groups and state school systems, led by the National Research Council. They have been adopted by 13 states and the District of Columbia, but face resistance in several states from climate skeptics on school boards and in legislatures.

"Climate is the major sticking point in the standards," said Lisa Hoyos, director and co-founder of the national activist group Climate Parents. "Even if a state has been involved in writing, they go home and the politics win out," she said. "Kids are caught in the crossfire."

The standards matter because science guidelines for kindergarten through 12th grade haven't been revised since 1996, advocates say. The proposed updates, completed in 2013, would standardize what students learn, make them more competitive globally and erase disparities in the teaching of science subjects, particularly climate science. Debates about science education in the past centered on evolution. This time, resistance focuses almost entirely on the treatment of man-made global warming, several education experts told InsideClimate News.

Within a week of West Virginia's school board approving altered guidelines raising doubt about global warming, parents, teachers, university professors and education groups such as the National Center for Science Education bombarded the state board with protests and petitions. After reversing itself, the education board plans to hold a final vote on adopting the science standards in March, after a public comment period.

The West Virginia economy relies heavily on the coal industry. Last week, legislators repealed the state's 2009 renewable energy mandates.

Lawmakers in Kentucky, Michigan and South Carolina have also intervened in opposition to the science education standards.

Conservative Republican lawmakers who won election in 2010 and 2014 are leading efforts for legislatures to play a more direct role in managing states' schools, including deciding what should be taught in classrooms—a job that used to sit solely in the hands of state boards of education, said Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based advocacy group. Since conservative lawmakers are often backed by fossil fuel interests and deny that man-made climate change is happening, the Next Generation Science Standards have become a prime target for them.    

The last time states considered national education standards was in 2009—the Common Core math and English guidelines. In two years, 43 states and the District of Columbia adopted them, more than three times the number that have accepted the science standards in a similar period. The major difference, education experts said, is that states had an incentive to adopt the Common Core: the chance for a share of $4.35 billion from the Department of Education's Race to the Top program in the 2009 stimulus bill.

As with all national standards, adoption is voluntary because federal education authorities leave K-12 curricula to the states. There is no federal money attached to the Next Generation Science Standards. States will have to pay the costs of implementing them without any federal funding. 

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

"No challenge, no challenge, poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," Obama said in his State of the Union address. "I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts."

Adopting new standards for any subject is no easy task. Once approved, states need to spend money updating teachers on the new guidelines and buying textbooks that comply with new material. Even then, teachers can tweak the standards to fit their own individual curriculum goals. That's where the teaching of controversial topics such as climate change and evolution are most often tweaked to sow doubt among students.

The debate over the Next Generation Science Standards is going on now in Wyoming. State legislators tacked a footnote onto the 2014-2016 budget bill denying the use of government funds to review or adopt the standards mainly because of their stance on climate change. Wyoming is a major producer of coal, oil and natural gas. The state House of Representatives voted 39-21 on a bill Monday to reverse the budget block. The bill still has to make it through the Senate and be signed by the governor before Wyoming can even begin discussing whether to adopt the standards.

"Conversation about the Next Generation Science Standards is happening everywhere," said David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

Utah is expected to take up the issue soon. So is Alabama. Proponents of the standards are also watching to see what Florida and New York, the third and fourth most populous states, will do. Texas, which has never adopted national education standards and wields enormous clout with textbook publishers because of the size of its market, has already said it won't adopt the science guidelines because it has never adopted national standards.

"Science is science," Rosenau said. "It is the same in Maine, Illinois and California. It shouldn't be subject to a culture war."

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