California’s new environmental education program, the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI), is another victim of the state budget crisis.  Although the K-12 program was developed with state funding, the state is not providing further support.  In order to implement EEI, the program is soliciting $22 million in outside funding from governmental, business, and philanthropic sources.  We’ve been looking into this issue out of concern for the ramifications of increasing private, particularly corporate, sponsorship of public education, and for the lack of oversight by outside groups.

The Education and the Environment Initiative will have a wide reach; it is being positioned to serve as a national model, and the new standardized K-12 environmental curriculum will reach 6.2 million students statewide and “countless families, communities, and businesses in our state and beyond.”  In a previous post, we discussed the state energy reader (“The Energy Source Buffet”), which downplays the impacts of burning fossil fuels and doesn’t address climate change.  We received a response from the California EPA, and are continuing to research the program and the issue of corporate funding in education.

Corporate funding in science education is widespread in California and nationwide, and in energy education specifically, a number of large energy corporations and industry associations have produced their own materials for distribution in schools.  Large corporate energy interests have made substantial investments in K-12 education programs, giving out grants, bringing teachers to conferences and workshops for training, and handing out classroom materials, all without significant oversight by environmental non-profit or watchdog organizations of the ramifications for curriculum content.

In one major example, Chevron Corporation is a large funder of science education and “community engagement investments” in California.  Through Chevron’s California Partnership, an initiative announced in 2009, “more than 20 nonprofit organizations and multiple public school districts across California have received investments,” totaling approximately $28 million.  In one example, Chevron awarded $1 million to community development organizations in Richmond, California, the site of one of its oil refineries that has been in “high priority violation” of Clean Air Act compliance standards since at least 2006 and has had disproportionately high health impacts on Richmond residents.

Chevron is also a sponsor of the National Energy Education Development Project (NEED), a nationwide program working to “provide energy education curriculum and training to every appropriate classroom in the nation.”  The project has been in existence for 30 years, and is sponsored by a range of energy interests, including large energy corporations and industry groups like BP, ConocoPhillips, the American Petroleum Institute, Pacific Gas and Electric, and Halliburton.

Supported by a grant from BP’s A+ for Energy Program, NEED’s California program provides educators with access to grants, NEED training, and NEED curriculum.  BP and NEED hosted seven Energy Conferences for Educators in 2005.

Chevron has also purchased and is promoting “Energy4Me” energy education materials “presented by” the Society of Petroleum Engineers for distribution in schools.  The “Energy4Me” kit includes classroom activities and presentations, teaching aids, and speaker resources.  Materials are available free to teachers when an “energy professional gives a classroom presentation,” or when teachers attend a “science teacher professional development workshop,” with substitute reimbursement provided.  Teachers can also be provided with the “Oil and Natural Gas” book, which “shows kids how petroleum and natural gas shapes our world,” or an “Energy Sources of the World!” booklet that discusses the pros and cons of different energy sources.

Materials from this energy education module were distributed by Chevron representatives at the recent California Science Teachers’ Association conference. The front of the “Energy Sources of the World!” booklet reads: “A Gift from the People of Chevron.”

The ramifications of corporate energy funding in academic research have been studied and written about recently, but to our knowledge the same scrutiny hasn’t been extended to the influence of corporate money in K-12 education programs, at least outside of the professional education community.  Should “gifts from Chevron” be anywhere near the classroom?  The conflict of interest involved in for-profit corporations sponsoring education programs in subject matters coinciding with their business interests is clear, but the issue hasn’t been fleshed out, especially with more nuanced cases like EEI, where corporate support will come after the program has been developed.  We’ll be continuing to write about EEI as an example of this dynamic in action, and welcome any feedback.