The U.S. House of Representatives is proposing to slash funding for popular and successful environmental education programs across the country. In Maryland, the Prince George's and Montgomery county school systems, among others, are facing cuts to outdoor education. To find out what the death of these programs might mean, I took a trip recently to the Prince George's County outdoor education center. To hear my public radio program on the subject, click here.
On a sunny spring afternoon in the woods of central Maryland, a dozen fifth-grade students are exploring a stream, sweeping the water with small nets.
Some of them live in high-rise apartments, surrounded by parking lots, with no yards. And several have never caught a fish before. Their voices rise and their eyes widen. "It’s a fish, it’s a fish, it’s a fish! Oh my God!” a girl shrieks, lifting her net and touching a minnow.
For the last 40 years, the Prince George’s County School System has offered all of its students -– rich and poor, rural and urban –- lessons about ecology here at the 450-acre Schmidt Outdoor Education Center. The last campfire, however, may burn in June. The Prince George’s County Board of Education voted on February 24th to cut all funding for the program and close the center, which is located about 10 miles southeast of the Washington beltway in Brandywine, Maryland.
Donna Hathaway Beck, vice chair of the school board, said that reductions in both state and federal funding, combined with declining enrollment, forced the school district to cut $155 million from its overall budget, or about 10 percent. One of the 47 recommendations from the superintendent was to eliminate Camp Schmidt, which costs about $1 million a year, she said.
At the camp, students learn not only how to test the water quality of streams. They also bond and draw inspiration from a two-day program that includes scrambling over obstacle courses, singing around campfires, and sleeping in bunk beds.
“It was heartwrenching" to cut the program, said Hathaway Beck. "I have four children, and I went to Camp Schmidt with them when they were students."
But she added that the school system is in a financial crisis. "We can’t expect more stimulus money from the federal government, and we are now in the position where we are having to cinch our belts very tightly.”
The decision must still be approved by the county council. And supporters of Camp Schmidt are scrambling to find money to keep it open.
During a time of financial hardship across the nation, Prince George’s County is far from the only place looking at cutting environmental education. For example, the Montgomery County Public School System is looking to cut $50 million from its budget, including eliminating the roughly $600,000 necessary to run the county's Smith Outdoor Education Center in Derwood, Md. Maryland government funding for environmental education fell from $4 million in 2007, to $2.1 million in 2010, before increasing slightly to $2.8 million in 2011, according to the Maryland Department of Education.
More broadly, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a budget that would eliminate an program called Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) that is run through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). B-WET provides outdoor learning to 68,000 students a year in the Chesapeake region at a cost of $3.5 million a year. Among the 35 school systems and nonprofits that use these federal funds (either directly or indirectly) is the Fairfax County public school system in Virginia, and the Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, and Frederick county school systems in Maryland, as well as several districts on the Eastern Shore, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Shannon Sprague, environmental literacy manager for the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office, said the fate of the eight-year-old program is up in the air, because it is not clear what the U.S. Senate will do with the House's proposed federal budget.
"There would be programs and environmental education centers that would be shut down," if the federal funding is cut, Sprague said. "Many people would lose their jobs....And tens of thousands of students would be stuck in their classrooms learning about the environment, instead of going outside and experiencing the environment as they learn about it."
Don Baugh, Vice President for Education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (right), has led the national No Child Left Inside Coalition’s effort to embed environmental education into the classroom curriculum for all students. “There may have never been a more important time to invest in environmental education. As the 21st century is creating historic challenges, such as with energy and jobs, our youth need to be best prepared to turn challenges into opportunities," Baugh said. "These funding cuts are a travesty, at precisely the wrong time.”
At the same time this financial support for environmental education is being eyed for cuts, the Maryland State Board of Education is proposing to vote in June to make environmental literacy a high school graduation requirement.
Mary Cary, assistant state superintendent for instruction at the State Department of Education, said students will have to complete a locally-designed high school program of environmental literacy that is approved by the state school superintendent. The overall goal, she said, is to produce students who grow up to pollute less and conserve more.
"This is a very important program," Cary said. "What we want is a student who is environmentally literate, and not just aware of the environment, but really has the actual skills and knowledge to make wise decisions that will contribute in a positive way, for example by rebuilding our streams or cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay."
Stephen Barry, coordinator of outdoor education for the Anne Arundel County Public School System (left), said it would be counter-productive for the government to cut support for environmental education, especially in light of the state's new graduation requirements.
“There is a conflict that we are trying to move forward, and at the same time, cutting funds,” Barry said. “I’ve been the field for 40 years, and many times I just feel that we take one step forward, and we take two steps back.”
Local school systems could still meet the new state graduation requirement without outdoor education programs, like the one at Camp Schmidt. Students could, in theory, learn about stream life through research on computers.
“I get personally concerned, because I see generation after generation being more and more separated from nature," Foutz said. "And if you don’t fall in love with something, you are not going to be very motivated to protect it, and to learn more about it, and want to preserve it.”
Cathy may soon lose her job. Her students may lose a lot more.
Article and photos by Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation