The Heat Is Online

Wyoming rejects education on human climate influence

Science Standards Divide a State Built on Coal and Oil

The New York Times, May 18, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Sitting in the headquarters of the Wyoming Liberty Group, Susan Gore, founder of the conservative think tank, said new national science standards for schools were a form of “coercion,” adding, “I don’t think government should have anything to do with education.”

Ms. Gore, a daughter of the founder of the company that makes Gore-Tex waterproof fabric, was speaking here weeks after the Republican-controlled Legislature made Wyoming, where coal and oil are king, the first state to reject the standards, which include lessons on human impact on global warming. The pushback came despite a unanimous vote by a group of Wyoming science educators urging acceptance. Wyoming was the first state to say no, but likely not the last. A House committee in Oklahoma last week voted to reject the standards, also in part because of concerns about how climate change would be taught.

Amid a growing cascade of studies documenting melting ice caps and rising temperatures, schools are increasingly teaching students about climate change and the new guidelines, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, have been adopted so far by 11 states and the District of Columbia. They assert that human activity has affected the climate.

Many here and elsewhere consider that liberal dogma rather than scientific consensus and want their children to hear it as theory rather than fact. What is more, some Wyoming lawmakers say, such teaching is a threat to the state’s economic engine.

The standards “handle global warming as settled science,” State Representative Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle, told The Casper Star-Tribune. “There’s all kind of social implications involved in that, that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.” Although oil companies like Exxon and Chevron have publicly supported the Next Generation standards, Mr. Teeters told The Star-Tribune that such teaching could wreck the economy of Wyoming, the country’s largest energy exporter. Mr. Teeters, who declined requests to elaborate, was joined in his objections by Ron Micheli, chairman of the State Board of Education, who called the standards “very prejudiced, in my opinion, against fossil fuel development.”

The controversy over climate science — and the question of whether other states will reject the standards — is in many ways a replay of fights over the teaching of evolution. Opponents say parents and local educators should determine what is taught to children.

“We question this whole idea of standards reform and the whole idea of nationalized standards,” said Amy Edmonds, policy analyst at the Wyoming Liberty Group. “We believe at the heart that it continues to take away parental choice.”

The new standards were developed by 26 state governments and several groups of scientists and teachers. They provide signposts for what students should learn in each grade between kindergarten and high school graduation, but leave decisions about textbooks and how to teach the curriculum to individual districts, schools and educators.

In Wyoming, after 18 months of study and comparison with standards from other states, a committee of science educators unanimously recommended last fall that the State Board of Education adopt the guidelines. In March, at the tail end of the state’s legislative session, lawmakers passed a footnote to the biennial budget, prohibiting any public spending to implement the new standards.

And last month, the State Board of Education ordered the committee of science educators to come up with a new set of standards. Mr. Micheli, the chairman and a cattle rancher from Fort Bridger, said he was concerned about any teaching on climate change that did not consider “the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the expenditure of the effort to bring under control global warming.”

In other states, the debate is also intense. Last fall, the Legislature in Kentucky voted to reject the new science guidelines but Gov. Steven L. Beshear overruled the Legislature and put the standards in place with an executive order. In South Carolina, state-specific guidelines with watered-down references to climate change and evolution are still awaiting approval by the State Legislature.

Here in Wyoming and elsewhere, criticism of the Next Generation standards is also being fueled by a spreading backlash against national academic standards in general. Across the country, opponents on the right and left have attacked the Common Core, a separately developed set of standards for what elementary, middle and high school students should know and be able to do in reading and math, and that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

With an election for governor this year, opposing the standards is “becoming a political litmus test,” said Richard Barrans, a science education professor at the University of Wyoming who served on the state’s standards review committee. “Are you enough of an independent, antigovernment person?” He added that the role of humans in climate change is only a small part of the science standards.

Even educators who identify themselves as conservative said they saw no problem with the standards. Walter Hushbeck, a high school science teacher in Cheyenne who served on the standards review committee, said that critics of the standards were “bullies.”

Nonetheless, Gov. Matt Mead has made clear that he is skeptical of national science standards for Wyoming. Cindy Hill, the state’s superintendent of education, who is running against Mr. Mead in the August Republican primary with Tea Party support, declined to comment.

Supporters of the standards are incensed by what has happened.

“Political realities should not wag the dog of science,” said Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the American League of Women Voters in Wyoming and a member of Wyoming for Science Education, a group of parents and educators. “We acknowledge and appreciate the revenue that has been raised and that runs this state from oil and gas extraction and from the coal mining, and it is a fact that our schools are well funded because of it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change a scientific fact.”

Some Wyoming school districts have already adopted the Next Generation standards on their own. In Goshen County, the heart of cattle and sugar beet country, for example, science teachers have been developing curriculum around the standards for the past three years.

Roger Spears, science facilitator for the school district, said he liked the guidelines because they promoted scientific inquiry and allowed flexibility at the local level. “We’re not trying to be controversial about it,” Mr. Spears said. “The majority of us will present evidence. That’s what the scientific method is all about.”

On a recent morning at Southeast Elementary School in Yoder, a speck on the map about 75 miles north of Cheyenne, Mr. Spears, wearing his signature tie-dye lab coat, used an electrostatic generator to make a student’s hair stand on end and showed how a bicycle pump could make a puddle of water and some smoke bloom into an instant cloud inside a five-gallon glass jug.
With so many jobs in the state dependent on science and technology, Mr. Spears said, it was important that Wyoming students got the best science curriculum. “Do you want our kids, or do you want other people to come and take those jobs?” he asked.