USA Today
June 23, 1998, Tuesday, FINAL EDITION

Lobbyists Trying to Sway Younger Minds

By Jim Drinkard

Washington -- When 14 energy industry lobbyists gathered in April to work out details of a $ 6 million lobbying plan, their targets for persuasion included the usual groups -- Congress, the news media, the public -- and one that was unusual: schoolchildren. The influence brokers, assembled at the Washington headquarters of the American Petroleum Institute (API), were looking for ways to defeat the global climate treaty adopted in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. It calls for reducing emissions that contribute to global warming.

One tactic: raise doubts in children's minds about the scientific basis for the treaty.

"Informing teachers/students about uncertainties in climate science will begin to erect a barrier against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future," says a memo from the meeting. The memo was obtained by the National Environmental Trust, a group working for approval of the treaty.

Aiming lobbying messages at schoolchildren is a little-noticed but growing avenue of influence, educators say. "It's definitely on the upswing," says Kathleen Lyons of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "As teachers, we do not think that has a place in the classroom. Students should not be used as pawns in any sort of lobbying game."

Educators have complained loudly in recent years about the proliferation of commercial pitches in classrooms. These include commercially sponsored educational cable television, contests, posters and materials that promote Hollywood movies, fast food, athletic shoes and other merchandise.

But school officials say ideas are being promoted in much the same ways as products, and the pitches may be harder for teachers to detect. A 1995 study by the Consumers Union, a nonprofit watchdog organization, of corporate-sponsored school materials found that nearly 80% contained "biased or incomplete information" in a way that "favors the company or its economic agenda."

Filling a vacuum

Most schools maintain elaborate systems to ensure that textbooks and other curriculum materials are reviewed by experts and present a balanced and complete view. But current policy issues often are not included in those materials, and lobbyists see a vacuum where they can play a role.

For example:

-- Dow Chemical sent science teachers an MTV-style video that touts the benefits of chemicals and highlights their roles in teen favorites like fast food, perfumes and color TV. It leaves students with the message that "chemistry is the power to understand and control the world we live in."

-- Exxon has distributed a video that portrays the cleanup after the company's disastrous Alaska oil spill in 1989 as a model of environmental success.

-- Chevron already has distributed its own instructional video to schools on the subject of global warming. Narrated by astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford, the video's main point is that the science of global warming is unsettled. It ends with a reminder to students that they soon will be able to vote and make "important decisions" about the issue.

The pitches take the form of videotapes, software, posters, glossy brochures, booklets and overhead visuals. They come from a variety of industries and trade groups, including energy, chemical and manufacturing concerns.

The goal, lobbyists say, is to get children to influence their parents' views and to create a favorable image in the minds of future decision makers. When the topic is the environment, it is also a belated effort to overcome what industry views as a pro-environmental bias rooted in education.

A search for 'balance'

"Most of the time, the balance is not there on the environment," API spokesman Joseph Lastelic says. From magazines such as Ranger Rick to Earth Day observances, children receive pro-environmental messages with little attention to the costs and tradeoffs, he says. "It's harming us economically and harming our energy security." In the case of the energy industry, lobbyists hoped to recruit scientists friendly to their position who would write materials critical of the Kyoto treaty's scientific underpinnings. They would then distribute the materials through the National Science Teachers Association "for use in classrooms nationwide."

Up to $ 300,000 would be spent on the effort, according to the memo from the lobbyists' meeting in April. The money would be raised among the oil, mining, utility and manufacturing sectors. Among the corporations represented at the meeting were Exxon, Chevron and The Southern Company, a utility holding company.

Lastelic calls the meeting simply a "brainstorming" session and says the proposals might not be carried out. "The industry believes the science debate should still go on and wants to do its part," he says. "But there is no formal plan."

Other large energy companies already have tacitly conceded that action is needed to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming. British Petroleum, Sun Oil, Enron, U.S. Generating Company and American Electric Power recently signed onto an anti-global warming initiative.

Demand for material

There is an international scientific consensus that human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, is contributing to a gradual rise in the Earth's average temperature, says Jerry Mahlman, a Princeton climatologist who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"There is a voracious demand for information about this subject" from schools because of the Kyoto treaty, Mahlman says. But little is available in textbooks, he says. That gives opponents of the treaty an opportunity to emphasize the viewpoints of scientists who disagree.

Gerald Wheeler sees the lobbying efforts from his post as executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

"Almost everybody has some message they want to get to students," including corporations, trade groups and government agencies, Wheeler says. "The trick for us is to figure out whether there is a mission there which is related to our mission: promoting excellence." He calls the American Petroleum Institute's effort "irresponsible."

Many lobbyists bypass review by the science teachers' group or other gatekeepers by mailing their materials directly to schools and teachers.

"A lot of teachers aren't aware that the free curriculum they are getting has a bias," says Larry Giacomino, a science teacher at Mills High School in Millbrae, Calif., a San Francisco suburb. Because of budget cuts that have hit California schools particularly hard, "we don't look the gift horse in the mouth. It's pernicious."

For example, an industry-sponsored chemistry curriculum is in wide use in schools despite a distinct pro-industry slant, Giacomino says. There's little critical thinking about acid rain or the use of toxic chemicals in mining in the materials, he says. "You get a lot of teachers who don't know a lot about the politics of chemistry, and they'll use the whole thing," he says.

The Consumers Union study found that corporate-sponsored materials are replete with "self-interested, incomplete or discriminatory points of view." It found that "such materials basically teach opinion as if it were fact."

The screening process

One analyst who has studied school-business partnerships, Diana Rigden of the Council for Basic Education, says the potential for skewed information is "really dangerous, and it does happen."

"School people need to understand that businesses are not supporting education entirely for philanthropic reasons," she says. "I don't know of any company that has created curriculum materials that doesn't have a corporate interest in mind."

To help schools and teachers screen the materials they received, the National Education Association and other groups have established guidelines. They say materials should advance educational goals, not public relations, and information should be consistent with prevailing expert opinion, objective, balanced and complete.

"The real issue for schools is not whether everyone agrees with what you teach; if that were the standard, everyone would be silent," says Alex Molnar, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who studies commercial influences on schools. "It's what the school, using its best efforts, finds to be the best information available on a given subject, uninfluenced by special interests."

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