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4cd46543b8383 Jayni Chase talks about public education with architect Stuart Brodsky and Doug Paulson from the Minnesota Department of Education. Click on this image to view other photos.
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A green schools national forum reviewed the history of environmental education and public schools partcipation in sustainability and energy efficiency programs.
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Rachel Martin, whose organization Sustain Dane is collaborating in the development an agro-urban green charter school in Madison, Wis.
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Jim McGrath, president of the Green Charter Schools Network, talks about the broader umbrella of green schools.
Jayni Chase talks about public education with architect Stuart Brodsky and Doug Paulson from the Minnesota Department of Education. Click on this image to view other photos.

Going Green in a Free Society

National Conference Considers Role of Public Schools and Democracy

November 04, 2022

An explorer who has trekked across polar regions, a deep-sea diver who has seen the delicate ecosystems along the coastlines and the depths of the world’s oceans, and a celebrity mom who is concerned about children’s health offered their perspectives on environmental issues, problems, public priorities and policy during keynote speeches at the 1st Annual Green Schools National Conference.

Each had a very different personal experience, but each put his or her hope for solutions at the foot of American public schools. It was at once a cacophony of ideas and coherence. Amid the different perspectives on a " green"-school vision, each speaker touched on an almost indiscernible common thread about the role of public schools in a free, democratic society.

Will Steger, a polar explorer who founded the Will Steger Foundation to foster leadership and international cooperation through environmental education and policy, noted that the role of schools is as “demonstration models” for communities.

Jayni Chase, wife of comedian Chevy Chase and long-time advocate of greener schools, further recognized that public schools are the “hearts of our communities." As valuable community properties and assets, schools cannot easily be changed by outside pressure, coercion or national agendas. The pushback against external pressure on schools can be substantial and business as usual will often prevail. “You have to work hand-in-hand with people in the community, in the surrounding neighborhoods,” she said.

Philippe Cousteau—CEO of EarthEcho International, co-founder of Azure Worldwide, and chief ocean correspondent for both the Animal Planet and Planet Green channels—said that schools can best serve the environment by emphasizing the skills of citizenship, rather than adopting a specific program or viewpoint. Cousteau suggested schools should develop in the next generation environmental ethics to take the natural world into consideration in balance with the economy, cultural traditions, comfort, lifestyle and other social concerns. Equipping future citizens to make choices in a democracy by weighing and balancing competing interests is a primary role of schools. And, Cousteau added, sheer “neglect” of the natural world and lack of exposure to the outdoors are as much contemporary problems as large-scale pollution and degradation of resources. “We need critical thinking” to understand news and information as well as to consider our desires for “big cars, big homes, and big jets,” Cousteau explained. Humans need food, drinking water, and shelter to survive, Cousteau said, “Everything else we want.” He did not advocate a subsistence lifestyle but greater understanding of a larger context in making personal choices and exercising free will. And, he said, young people must be allowed to explore “crazy ideas” and new directions to use their youthful enthusiasm and optimism to untangle the difficult public problems with which this country is faced. Schools must see it as a new imperative that they foster entrepreneurship and consider how they may be stifling ingenuity in the next generation. “Never say ‘no’ to a crazy idea,” Cousteau suggested.

An unspoken thread--and, perhaps, an unwelcome reality in the eyes of some environmental activists who want to change schools quickly--that came out subtly in all the speakers' messages was this:

Public education can do little to create a sustainable culture if it forces upon children, parents and communities the ready-made values of teachers or the adults in charge of schools. Nor can schools coerce communities to adopt the priorities of environmental activists or any national organization. Change comes from personal relationships, trust, role models, community actions and democracy. In the United States, schools operate within the context of a free society where people must be allowed and trusted to make individual choices and differing views are respected.

That is why charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, may have the greatest opportunities to make public education greener because they are “schools of choice,” entirely premised on individual choices made by parents and students as well as community action and ownership. Operating out front on the issues of sustainability, green charter schools in particular hold great promise of being models of change that will move traditional schools voluntarily toward sustainability in a manner that is culturally acceptable and democratically enacted. They are not an adjunct to the green schools movement, they have been and will be the drivers of the movement.



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