Sources say the budget proposed by Gov. Scott Walker, candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, would cripple environmental education throughout Wisconsin if passed.
The proposal eliminates the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board as well as the Department of Public Instruction Environmental Education consultant position. It also repeals state statute requiring establishment of the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“A lot of environmental education students say it’s not worth staying in Wisconsin if the budget proposal goes through,” said Angela Matel, Environmental Educators and Naturalists Association president.
Matel, youth program and camp management major, grew up in inner-city Milwaukee and was introduced to nature by the Urban Ecology Center.
“It kept me out of trouble and allowed me to kayak and canoe, something I still do today,” Matel said. “I want to help other inner-city kids discover nature and would like to see more naturalists involved in educating underprivileged youth.”
Ken Leinbach, executive director at the center in Milwaukee, said, “it seems the state is going backwards in terms of the environment because it is such a critical issue now and will only become more so in the future.”
Jeremy Solin, the center’s program director, said repealing state statute for the center in Stevens Point does not eliminate it, but could pose a risk to future funding. Created under Gov. Thompson, the center has supported K-12 environmental education for more than 20 years.
The DPI consultant, now Virginia Rydberg, supports school-based initiatives in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics education) and outdoor learning, the goal being to develop the state’s future workforce and entrepreneurs into those who sustain environmental health.
The elimination of this position will make it difficult for schools to take part in programs such as Green and Healthy Schools, which addresses major environmental and sustainability challenges to students. Working with the consultant also gives schools the opportunity to become energy efficient and save money, Solin said.
The position is not funded by state tax revenue, but by earnings from the state normal trust fund. Removing this position would not save tax payers money, he said.
Some grants from the board are not funded by state tax revenue either. $130,000 comes from fines related to breaking environmental state laws and $200,000 comes from the conservation fund from property tax. Each year $330,000 grants are given from the board to schools, organizations and non-profits in Wisconsin, he said.
The Wisconsin K-12 Energy Education Program (KEEP), an area of WCEE, is focused on making students aware of their energy use and efficiency, said Dave Barbier, sustainability coordinator at the Office of Sustainability.
Environmental education programs are very much in line with sustainability goals for the university and community, he said.
“Regardless of where you stand politically, we live on a planet with finite resources, period,” Barbier said. “They will run out and the better and more efficiently we can use them, the better our planet will be in the future.”
“It is core to our future as a state to develop environmentally literate citizens and encourage pursuit in natural resource careers,” Solin said.