Environmental Education in Tough Budget Times: White House Summit
Yesterday, I had the honor of attending the first ever White House Summit on Environmental Education. It was inspiring to listen to stories and suggestions from the government, business and non-profit communities about growing our commitments to deliver lifelong (K through Gray) environmental education for all.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson kicked off the summit with the recognition that “environmental education is vital to expanding the conversation on environmentalism and pursuing environmental justice.” Jackson announced the reconvening of a Federal Interagency Task Force on environmental education which would include a dozen or so federal agencies, including the Department of Education – a key player if we are going to make environmental education systemic.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined the summit and announced that the Department of Education was “in it for the long haul.” He discussed the role environmental education could play in closing the achievement gap and reducing our high school dropout rates. Did you know that only 8% of low-income kids will get a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four? Compare that with 80% of wealthy kids. Environmental education has been shown to inspire kids to learn and do better in school.
Richard Louv, one of my personal heroes, and best-selling author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, gave the keynote speech at the end of the day. Louv called on us to imagine a world where children experience the joy of nature BEFORE they learn of its destruction.
I am pleased to see this Administration recognize the value that environmental education has in our society, across sectors. Environmental education is critical to preparing future generations with the foundation they need to be competitive in a green economy. It’s important for giving our kids a context for learning and the basic understanding they will need to tackle tomorrow’s environmental challenges.
Unfortunately, environmental education has seen better days – at least financially speaking. Approximately $35 million in funding for three environmental education programs was cut out of the White House’s budget recommendations to Congress just a few weeks ago. A good chunk of the funds would have been granted through programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation to fund schools, nature centers, zoos, aquariums and other community-serving organizations that are getting kids outdoors and educating them about the environment and climate science, at the local level. The funding for EPA also supports the National Environmental Education Foundation which runs National Public Lands Day, the largest volunteer-led day of service on our public lands.
During the summit, Administrator Jackson assured participants that EPA was still committed to environmental education and will integrate $5 million in funding for FY2013 (half of last year’s EPA environmental education budget) across programs to support environmental education. Sierra Club recognizes that the federal government is facing very tough budget times and that difficult decisions are being made across the board, but environmental education is too important to let slip through the cracks. We need to make a stronger commitment to funding these critical programs.
I am truly thankful to the Administration for hosting such an important summit and helping to raise the discourse about environmental education across sectors and segments of society. I look forward to seeing the reformation of the task force and how we translate this summit into action for our kids and our environment. Sierra Club will continue to work to get kids outdoors and be a national voice in support of environmental education.
by Jacqueline Ostfeld; Sierra Club's National Youth Representative