Issue January 22, 2008

A changing environment: College environmental education programs will likely weather budget cuts

It was not so long ago, and it still remains the case in many states, that whenever budgets need to be tightened, environmental education gets squeezed out. But Teddie Phillipson, the director of the year-old Center for Environmental Education at the University of Louisville,  said a growing respect for environmental education, backed by resources, means Kentucky’s current budget crisis won’t put environmental education in critical condition.

The economic alarms sounding lately in Louisville and statewide are symptomatic of an overall slowdown in the national economy. Although Kentucky is among the first states to announce major budget cuts, others will likely follow. Gov. Steve Beshear has warned university administrators of possible 12 percent cuts to their own budgets, on top of an earlier request to cut 3 percent.

University of Louisville spokesman John Drees said the university will address its initial 3-percent cut through a hiring freeze, and additional funds have come from an unexpected enrollment boost of several hundred students. A bill approved in the House this month would allow schools to use bonds to fund projects, but its future is uncertain.

Phillipson, however, is simply happy to have a budget to cut. Her program is charged with teaching teachers how to teach about the environment. In that area, Kentucky is surprisingly progressive; all eight of its public universities have centers for environmental education, which have received significant state funding for the past two years. U of L wants to add an endorsement program so current teachers can take coursework and assume leadership roles in EE programs at elementary and secondary schools.

Environmental education is now a requirement of education programs throughout the country, Phillipson said, largely because of efforts that came out of Kentucky universities. Three Kentucky educators, including David Wicks of Jefferson County Public Schools, have served as president of a national accreditation organization.

Phillipson thinks that leaves room for optimism, even if the initial 3-percent budget cut she presented to the university was met with a request for a budget showing 8 percent cuts to the department. That means cutting work-study positions for students, but the long-time environmental education veteran said it’s rare she would have her own funds to work with in the first place.

“What’s unique about my position at U of L is that I have a budget — it has to be cut, but there’s money just for environmental education. I have a little extra — not a lot — but a little extra to work with.”

That is, few states have the sort of structure that would afford the center a measure of protection in fiscally troubled times so it will take hits with everyone else rather than risk being cut altogether.

That is important not only to Jefferson County Public Schools, but also eight other counties. “We sponsor the youth summit that’s coming up, and I may not have the money in time to fund it in the way it really should be funded,” she said, including paying for substitute teachers and transportation so public school students can attend.

“Now, of course, I’m going to have to seek my own grant funding and everything, but I feel very comfortable that even with the budget cuts, the center will be able to provide those environmental education initiatives that are needed in our community,” Phillipson said.

“My (teaching methods) class is going to be somewhat hurt, but I have to guard that answer because we’re really just fortunate to have that class.” She said the resources afforded U of L’s program through the Partnership for a Green City also make a difference when it comes to cutting. Even with less money, she can more quickly undertake initiatives that would otherwise require long-suffering policy-change efforts in state government.

She also plans to take advantage of increased national funding for environmental education initiatives, including those of the National Science Foundation. “I think in terms of percentages, environmental education is coming into the forefront, even in times of recession.

“Before, we were kind of — you know, we were (considered) hippie freaks. You know, you had to be a liberal. But it’s never going to be a fad anymore, because (society has) some serious decisions to make.”

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com