As Congress continues its rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law, there is one proposed change that should draw overwhelming approval. That's the mandate — added to the bill last week by a Senate committee — to require U.S. public schools to teach environmental literacy.
The need for environmental education has never been greater. Every day, the country seems to be facing new and difficult choices touching on environmental issues, ranging from how to meet energy needs to how to deal with toxic materials that might pollute our air, water or soil. The next generation will only face more difficult decisions as the Earth's population grows (it is predicted to reach 7 billion this month) but its natural resources do not.
Maryland recognized this challenge last year when environmental literacy was made a mandatory part of the curriculum. The requirement leaves it largely up to individual school districts how best to meet this educational goal.
So, too, would the amendment to No Child Left Behind (now called by its former name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) recently offered by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey that would direct federal funding to support environmental literacy. Those same federal dollars can also be used toward public school programs that emphasize American history, civics, the arts, geography, foreign languages and financial literacy under the Senate bill.
So far, the measure has attracted bipartisan support. Mr. Casey's amendment was based on similar legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican.
One reason why the measure has attracted endorsements from Democrats and Republicans alike is the obvious benefit to the nation's economy. Filling "green" jobs requires young people with the skills and knowledge to tackle them. Advocates say 40 of the 50 states have already adopted some form of environmental literacy, whether by executive order or by regulation.
But the proposal is likely to face much tougher going on the Senate floor and in the House of Representatives, where conservatives have been at war with environmental regulations of all shapes and sizes since the 2010 midterm elections. Even raising the possibility that schoolchildren might be taught about climate change and greenhouse gases raises the hackles of some who would apparently prefer students be left in the dark on this vital subject.
Too many in the GOP see environmental education as liberal indoctrination. In fact, teaching science in the classroom is a pro-business, pro-economic growth, pro-jobs approach to education in the global economy.
Might teachers wind up raising concerns about pollution and admitting that steps must sometimes be taken to protect human health? Certainly. No valid environmental curriculum could avoid touching on these subjects. Educators must be given the freedom to teach reality and not conform to partisan demands of any particular political doctrine or religious view.
Perhaps one of the best measures of the growing importance of environmental education is the popularity of advanced placement environmental science courses. Over the last decade, the number of high school students enrolled in the class has risen 426 percent nationwide, compared to 97 percent growth for all AP classes.
The real question facing schools is not whether environmental science should be taught in the classroom but how and how much. That's a challenge for educators, not for Congress or the Maryland General Assembly, as they balance the need for environmental literacy against other subjects, including the core curriculum.
Too bad the GOP's current war against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and against environmental regulations generally may blind some lawmakers to this pressing need. Of course, if more people understood the threat of mercury poisoning, for instance, they might elect a Congress less inclined to pass laws rolling back regulations governing cement kiln emissions, a major source of mercury, as the House did earlier this month.
But that is a matter for the ballot box in 2012. This is about giving young people the tools they need to prosper and make informed decisions during their lifetimes. Growing a knowledge-based economy requires a national commitment to foster a better understanding of the environment and the forces that are shaping the planet.