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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Coal in the Classroom

Air Date: Week of May 13, 2011

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Children’s books publisher Scholastic is taking money from the coal industry to teach elementary students the benefits of coal. The coal industry calls it “progress.” Some academics call it “propaganda.” It’s just the latest example of the coal industry’s forays into the classroom. In Kentucky, taxpayer money supports a coal industry program that offers students misleading information about climate change. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on coal in the classroom.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The name Scholastic should ring a bell - a school bell that is. If you went to public school in the United States, you might remember the Scholastic company’s book clubs. Scholastic, Inc. is the world’s largest publisher of children’s books.

“Clifford the Big Red Dog,” “The Magic School Bus” series - just two of the company’s vast offerings made possible because of its partnerships with authors and artists. But now Scholastic is drawing criticism for another partnership - one with the coal industry. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on coal’s efforts to influence kids in classrooms.

YOUNG: The American Coal Foundation paid Scholastic to help produce and place in classrooms maps and worksheets called the “United States of Energy.” At first glance, it looks like an exploration of all sources of electricity. But much of the information comes from the National Mining Association, a coal-lobbying group. And these exercises for children subtly emphasize coal’s benefits.

CHILD’S VOICE: How is the energy collected from nature? What are the benefits of this kind of energy?

YOUNG: But there are no questions asking kids about any drawbacks.

  


Scholastic, Inc., helped the American Coal Foundation place the “United States of Energy” materials in 4th grade classrooms. The map highlights the top coal producing states. (Scholastic, Inc.)

CHILD’S VOICE: Follow along this flow chart to learn how coal is turned into electricity. One, miners dig for coal in surface or underground mines. Two,…

YOUNG: For example, this chart does not mention damage from mining or pollution. The pictured miner doesn’t have a smudge of coal dust. The power plant has no smokestack. An attractive map highlights top coal producing states. Solar power shows up only once - in the desert.

CHILD’S VOICE: Bonus - coal is the source of half of the electricity produced in the United States. Research - a coal-producing state.

YOUNG: These materials strike some education watchdogs and environmental educators as one-sided and not in keeping with criteria for fairness or balance.

BONINGER: You know, they’re not really education - they’re propaganda.

YOUNG: That’s Faith Boninger, a research analyst with Arizona State University’s Commercialism in Education Research Unit.

BONINGER: It’s not meeting the standard of being unbiased. It intentionally portrays only the positive aspects of the coal industry.

YOUNG: Boninger says it’s unlikely that a busy teacher would seek out other materials to provide balance, especially because the Scholastic brand is so trusted. That reputation was clearly a selling point for the American Coal Foundation. A post on the Foundation’s Coal Blog notes that, “Four out of five parents know and trust the Scholastic brand.”

  

The 1991 video, paid for by coal burning electric companies, claims, “Our planet is deficient in CO2, and a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations would be very beneficial.” (CEDAR Program)

The Coal Foundation had been distributing materials on its own, but only about 7,000 teachers got the packages. Since the partnership with Scholastic, the Foundation says 66,000 fourth grade teachers have received materials to build into lesson plans. The Coal Foundation did not respond to an interview request. The advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is pressuring Scholastic to end the coal-funded project. Josh Golin is the campaign’s associate director.

GOLIN: I think all of us remember, you know, getting Scholastic book club flyers in schools and the thrill of opening our books when they arrived. So that’s why it’s so valuable to the coal industry to have Scholastic’s name on this - is because Scholastic has just a wonderful reputation among educators and in this case it’s ill deserved.

YOUNG: A Scholastic representative declined to be interviewed. Instead, she emailed a brief statement, which reads, in part, “Since the program is designed for elementary schoolchildren, the materials do not attempt to cover all of the complex issues around the sourcing and consumption of energy,” end quote.

The Scholastic partnership is just the latest example of the coal industry’s influence in classrooms. In the Appalachian mining communities of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, mining companies sponsor something called CEDAR, Coal Education Development and Resources. John Justice directs the CEDAR program in eastern Kentucky.

JUSTICE: All the coverage that the coal industry has received through the years through the media has all been negative. I mean, you’ll just not read anything positive about coal. So we wanted to give students and teachers an opportunity to look at the other side.

YOUNG: CEDAR offers teachers booklets and DVDs produced by coal-burning utility AEP and mining giant Peabody Coal. One emphasizes how Kentucky has benefited from reclaimed mine land. There is little mention of any negatives of strip mining. And on the issue of coal’s carbon dioxide emissions, CEDAR offers teachers this video, titled “The Greening of Planet Earth.”

[VIDEO EXCERPT - NARRATOR: And as more and more scientists are confirming, our world is deficient in carbon dioxide and a doubling of atmospheric CO2 is very beneficial.]

YOUNG: That 1991 video was paid for by a group of coal-burning power companies. Its claims are widely discredited. But it’s one of the few items CEDAR offers students to learn about climate change. Justice says the Kentucky CEDAR program’s biggest annual event is coming later this month, when some 500 students will participate in the regional Coal Fair.

JUSTICE: The Coal Fair is - students can enter a coal project where coal has to be the theme. It’s sort of like the science fair, if you remember the old type science fair.

YOUNG: Some projects explore geology through the creation of coal, or physics by way of coal combustion. But a number of projects read and sound like industry talking points. Here’s a sample of past fair projects in the music category.

[SAMPLE OF AUDIO FROM PROJECTS - KIDS CHANTING AND SINGING TO MUSIC: “Coal, Coal, Coal, Coal.”
“There are many uses of coal, and coal is a
great natural resource.”
“Coal, Coal, Coal, Coal.”
“Believe, when I say, Coal is the right way!”
“Can’t give up, Can’t give up,’Cause without coal
we would freeze to death! And not be able to
see.”]

YOUNG: If it sounds like kids are just repeating industry slogans, that’s okay with John Justice.

Coal in the classroom? The coal industry is gaining access to tens of thousands of classrooms with help from the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and, in Kentucky, taxpayer dollars. (Photo illustration: Bobby Bascomb)

  

JUSTICE: Well, you know, our program is to focus on the positive. Knowing that the negative is out there - either they’ve been exposed to it or they will be. And this way - this is the way that we view it’ll balance them out.

YOUNG: Justice says Coal Fair judges will award up to 12,000 dollars in prizes. The grand winners get a trip to Myrtle Beach. Some of this is paid for by Kentucky taxpayers. This year the state budget gave CEDAR 85,000 dollars. Taxpayers have provided about one and a half million dollars over the life of the eastern Kentucky program. I asked education analyst Faith Boninger at Arizona State University to assess the CEDAR materials and Coal Fair.

BONINGER: They just have every angle covered - they’re really very impressive. (Laughs). I mean, the student buy-in through the projects and the teacher buy-in…I just find those really insidious.

YOUNG: But Boninger doesn’t blame the coal industry for trying to clean up its image in classrooms. She says it’s the school officials, teachers, and parents who ultimately must decide how children will learn about our energy choices. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.


In one of the Kentucky Coal Fair projects, students tweak the lyrics of a Backstreet Boys song into a coal slogan: “Coal Is the Right Way!” Ironically, band member Kevin Richardson, a native Kentuckian, is an outspoken critic of coal mining’s damages.

***Click Here for an Update on the story*** -- Media attention to the coal industry’s influence in classrooms—including Living on Earth’s story—brought a quick response.

 

Links

Scholastic’s “United States of Energy” materials

Scholastic Teaching Materials

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood

CEDAR of Eastern Kentucky

American Coal Foundation

In Kentucky, the coal industry’s CEDAR program offers this video for classroom use. The 1991 production, paid for by coal burning electric companies, claims, “Our planet is deficient in CO2, and a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations would be very beneficial.”

 

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