By Al Jazeera America and Associated Press
Wyoming, the U.S.’s leading coal-producer, has become the first state to reject new K-12 science standards put forward by national education groups after officials objected to the teaching of man-made global warming as a fact.
The Wyoming Board of Education decided recently that the Next Generation Science Standards needed more review after questions were raised over the treatment of global warming.
Board President Ron Micheli said the review will look into whether “we can’t get some standards that are Wyoming standards and standards we all can be proud of.”
But others said the decision was a blow to science education in Wyoming.
“The science standards are acknowledged to be the best to prepare our kids for the future, and they are evidence based, peer reviewed, etc. Why would we want anything less for Wyoming?” Marguerite Herman, a proponent of the national standards, said.
Twelve states have adopted the standards since they were released in April 2013 with the goal of improving science education, and Wyoming is the first to reject them, said Chad Colby, spokesman for Achieve, one of the organizations that helped write the benchmarks.
“The standards are what students should be expected to know at the end of each grade, but how a teacher teaches them is still up to the local districts and the states, and even the teachers in most cases,” Colby said.
But the global warming and evolution components have created pushback around the country.
Amy Edmonds, of the Wyoming Liberty Group, said teaching “one view of what is not settled science about global warming” is just one of a number of problems with the standards.
“I think Wyoming can do far better,” Edmonds said.
Wyoming produces almost 40 percent of the nation’s coal, with much of it used by power plants to provide electricity around the nation. Minerals taxes on coal provided $1 billion to the state and local governments in 2012 and coal mining supports some 6,900 jobs in the state.
Burning coal to generate electricity produces large amounts of CO2, which is considered a heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. The overwhelming majority of scientists recognize that man-made CO2 emissions contribute to global warming. However, the degree to which it can be blamed for global warming has been disputed by a few.
Gov. Matt Mead has called federal efforts to curtail greenhouse emissions a “war on coal” and has said that he’s skeptical about man-made climate change.
This past winter, state lawmakers approved budget wording that sought to stop adoption of the standards.
“Wyoming is certainly unique in having legislators and the governor making comments about perceived impacts on the fossil fuel industry of kids learning climate science, and unique in acting on that one objection to prohibit consideration of the package of standards, of which climate science is a small component,” said John Friedrich, a member of the national organization Climate Parents, which supports the standards.
Friedrich and Colby noted that oil and gas industry giants Exxon Mobile and Chevron support the standards.
Opponents argue the standards incorrectly assert that man-made emissions are the main cause of global warming and shouldn’t be taught in a state that derives much of its school funding from the energy industry.
“I think those concepts should be taught in science; I just think they should be taught as theory and not as scientific fact,” state Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, said.
Paul Bruno, an eighth-grade California science teacher, said the climate-change components can cause confusion because they are difficult to navigate.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, gave the standards a “C” grade.
While the standards overall are “mediocre,” Bruno said they are being “a little bit unfairly impugned on more controversial topics like climate change or evolution.”
The standards for high school assert that models predict that human activity is contributing to climate change, but leave an “appropriate amount of uncertainty” and note that it’s important to factor in costs, reliability and other issues when considering global warming solutions, he said.
“And so I think it’s fair to say that the Next Generation Standards at least make gestures in the direction of wanting to accommodate those potentially skeptical viewpoints, particularly when it comes to things like energy production,” Bruno said.