State of the State: Teach Students About Coal, But Give Them All the Facts

Oct 1, 2013

Jamey Dunn
Credit 2014 / WUIS/Illinois Issues
Gov. Pat Quinn may be a fan of Squeezy the python, a cartoon character created to educate the public about the state’s growing pension liability, but his administration has put another mascot out of work. 

An anthropomorphic lump of coal shaped like Illinois and wearing a hardhat served as a mascot for The Illinois Coal Education Program, which teaches elementary school students about coal. (When looking over the educational materials for the program, I did not find a name for this little fellow. Let’s just call him “Lumpy.”) After allegations that the program provided one-sided information that bordered on being pro-coal propaganda, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has suspended the K-12 curriculum, dubbed “From the Coal Mines to the Power Lines,” as it evaluates the program. 

The Heartland Coalfield Alliance, which comprises members of several environmental organizations, launched a two-year campaign calling for a revamp of the program. They conducted a petition drive and sent postcards to Quinn and the DCEO. “We found it very disturbing because it was directed at young minds, and when we read through the curriculum, it was obvious they were definitely bent on trying to really encourage coal and coal mining to young people,” says Terri Treacy, a field representative for Sierra Club Illinois Chapter. She says the materials failed to tell the full story about coal’s history of pollution in the state or put the fuel into context as one of many energy choices. 

Lan Richart, co-founder of the Chicago-based Eco-Justice Collaborative, says it was a retired teacher who first brought the program to his attention. “It’s really a promotional piece for the coal industry,” he says. “We thought it was really a misuse of public funds and misleading misinformation.”

Under state law, the DCEO is required to undertake projects, including curriculum development and advertisements, to increase “public awareness” of “issues related to the use of Illinois coal, the coal industry and related developments.” The law specifically lists “school-aged residents of the state” as a target audience for such outreach. 

An annual conference for teachers to learn about coal, including sessions with scientific and industry experts and coal mine tours, is part of the program. In 2012, more than 100 teachers attended the conference, which was held at Rend Lake Resort in Whittington, according to DCEO. 

Teachers could also write to the DCEO to receive a free copy of “From the Coal Mines to the Power Lines.” The curriculum, which is hundreds of pages long and was developed in 2004, has been pulled from the agency’s website while DCEO is reviewing what it plans to do with the program going forward. The department estimates that it spends about $40,000 on the entire education program annually. The money comes out of the Illinois Coal Technology Development Assistance Fund, which is funded by an excise tax paid by utility customers. 

The now-defunct curriculum includes a variety of activities and discussion points for different grade levels. But the overall goal is stated as bringing students and communities “an awareness of our state’s greatest natural resource and the positive role coal plays in our day-to-day lives and the economy of the state.”

  Activities include creating a commercial for coal and its many uses and sorting the things made possible by coal into the categories of goods and services. While there are math problems that focus on how much coal is needed to fuel daily activities, such as drying clothes, there is no information provided about how children and their families could cut their energy use. The material also covers land reclamation after mining, but it greatly simplifies the process from both a political and environmental standpoint. The curriculum says, “Reclamation is returning the land to the way it was or better than before mining,” and “Lumpy” reminds us that, “Land reclamation lets us balance energy needs and our environmental needs.” These lessons imply that reclamation can negate all the environmental negatives that come with coal.

The curriculum directs teachers to the website of a national coal industry association for more information. And then there is the information in the material that seems completely irrelevant. Why do grade school children need to know the details of the pay and benefits of workers in the coal industry? 

While the curriculum is no longer online, the Kid’s Site on the DCEO’s website offers information that appears to be related to it. The page does have a section about the environmental impact of coal. However it focuses primarily on regulation and technology used to mitigate coal pollution and does not mention climate change. It could easily give the impression that most of the negative impact that coal has on the environment has been solved through technological advances. The takeaway summary at the end says, “Remember the effects of coal on our environment are minimized by: land reclamation, protecting and conserving water and clean-coal technologies.” Our old friend “Lumpy” makes an appearance, smiling next to the summary. Don’t worry. Nothing to see here, kids. Meanwhile coal mines and coal-fired power plants in the state continue to get dinged with water pollution violations. The Houston-based Dynegy keeps pushing for the extension of waivers from air pollution standards for five coal-fired power plants in Illinois that it plans to buy from Ameren. The waivers would allow Dynegy to delay installing pollution-reducing equipment at the plants. Not exactly clean coal. 

"An anthropomorphic lump of coal shaped like Illinois and wearing a hardhat served as a mascot for The Illinois Coal Education Program, which teaches elementary school students about coal."
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

  The program also includes an essay and art contest for students. Winning entries are featured in the Illinois Coal Calendar. According to a news release from DCEO, the 2014 Illinois Coal Calendar contest received almost 1,700 entries from students “whose teachers incorporated lessons on the value of coal resources to Illinois, the geology and science of coal and how coal is mined and used. The 2014 first place poster winner and essay winner each received $100 from the Illinois Coal Association. The 23 other finalists received $50. The association pays for most of the costs associated with printing the coal calendar. All in all, it seems pretty cheap for the public relations bang given by a heartwarming coal-positive calendar drawn by school kids. I am guessing there are other embattled industries that would like a similar PR opportunity. Why should the coal industry get such promotion from the state’s children? 

DCEO’s evaluation of the program overall did deem it outdated and suggest changes. “The current coal curriculum should be retired, and new or existing curriculum should be utilized. This curriculum should provide high-quality scientific content, a balance of perspectives, and present coal as part of an energy portfolio in national and global contexts,” the report said. 

As part of the evaluation, teachers who attended the annual conference were surveyed. Many of them found some of the information useful, and the mine tour was quite popular. Teachers did ask for information on other energy sources and generally asked that more information be relevant to students, especially younger ones. One respondent wanted to see “more on land reclamation. I know this is pro-coal, but I would have liked a little more info on green technologies. They make up 11 percent of our energy portfolio as a state, so a little information would help, perhaps just one presentation.”

A DCEO spokesperson said in an email that the program will be changed because it needs to fall in line with new education standards being implemented in the state and because “advances in the fields of science, both environmental and technical, needed to be included.” The report suggested that the DCEO phase in changes over two years, but the department does not have a hard timeline on when new curriculum will be produced and distributed to teachers.

Richart said of the evaluation: “We think that they have done a fairly good job. They came to some conclusions that we thought were fairly obvious.” However he said that all aspects of the program, including the website and annual conference, should be suspended until new educational material is created. 

He and Treacy say they are not opposed to children learning about coal, but they say that students should get the full picture. “We think that the education should be broader based, should address all primary energy sources and do a good job of helping the children to explore and understand and really grapple with both the pros and cons of all forms of energy,” Richart says. “Why should taxpayers be paying to teach our kids as young as kindergarten that coal is the fuel of the future?”

Treacy said an improved version of the program would still send teachers to coal mines, but also to wind farms and to community colleges to learn about solar energy projects. “Rather than avoiding the topic, we believe that children should be taught about all of our energy sources and the pros and cons of each one.” She says the state law that created the Coal Education Program may need to be revisited to include other topics.

All energy sources come with upsides and downsides. Coal does play an important role in the state’s economy and provides half the nation’s electricity. It creates jobs and lets us turn on the lights each day. But we all know that it also comes with environmental baggage and a history of dangerous working conditions. There is simply no justification for state government to teach kids a whitewashed lesson about coal or encourage them to create marketing materials for any private industry. Instead they should be learning about the state’s economy and power generation options minus the PR spin. Future generations will no doubt have some difficult choices to make when it comes to both issues. Let’s all hope that “Lumpy” sticks to retirement.

Illinois Issues, October 2013