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Obama Sends Mixed Signals on Environmental Education

Is environmental literacy a priority of the Obama administration? Observers could be forgiven for scratching their heads in confusion.

On one hand, the administration this week announced the first set of winners of the Green Ribbon Schools program, a new Obama initiative that recognizes schools that have done exemplary work in promoting environmental literacy and developing eco-friendly practices. And last week, it hosted what was billed as the first-ever White House summit on environmental education.

On the other hand, the president is seeking substantial cuts in federal aid to promote green literacy among young people. This situation was first brought to my attention the other day by the National Wildlife Federation, an advocacy group that has analyzed Obama's fiscal 2013 budget request.

First, the president's budget plan would wipe out EPA's $9.7 million Environmental Education program (though the agency announced plans at the summit to soften that blow). In addition, it would zero out two programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those are the $7.2 million Bay-Watershed Education and Training program, described by NOAA as promoting "place-based, experiential learning) and $8 million for environmental-literacy grants, according to the National Wildlife Federation. In addition, the group said $10 million in NASA funding for climate change education would be cut, and federal aid would be dramatically reduced for the same subject at the National Science Foundation.

Max Greenberg, a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, said his organization was especially alarmed about the proposed EPA cuts, which he argues "could cause a ripple effect throughout the environmental education community."

The EPA budget request explains that "due to competing budgetary priorities, the agency is eliminating funding from the Environmental Education program to support other mission critical programs, initiatives, and activities that more directly support the administration's highest priorities."

No doubt, it was a little awkward for EPA officials, including Administrator Lisa Jackson, to gather at an environmental education summit with a backdrop of agency plans to gut the budget for that activity. Perhaps recognizing the irony, Jackson apparently signaled that the administration had a change of heart and would find $5 million to ensure the EPA program was not abolished (though funding still would be nearly cut in half).

I inquired with EPA's press office about this announcement and asked for comment. The official who fielded my request never got back to me and never explained where the extra $5 million would come from, since it's not in the official budget request.

To be sure, the president's request isn't the last word. He'll have to work with Congress on a final spending package for the coming fiscal year.

In any case, it's often said that a budget request is a good gauge of an administration's priorities. If that's true, advocates for environmental education have reason to be perplexed.

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