Why are we under-educating the greatest workers and innovators in the world?

Why are we under-educating the greatest workers and innovators in the world?

Creating a climate literate population has not been a priority for the U.S., despite the obvious political, economic and environmental risks and opportunities looming on the not-too-distant horizon. 

Politics and complacency are clouding our appreciation of how valuable an educated workforce could be as a hedge against global competition and as a driver of a massive green expansion. Indeed, America’s failure to educate three generations of students who have graduated high school since the first Earth Day has become a national liability. 

To be sure, the failure to anticipate educational needs is not new. In the 1890s, the U.S. government mandated education once they realized the Industrial Revolution needed educated workers to compete with Europeans. A half-century later, when the 1957 Sputnik satellite launch created near despair among U.S. elites that the government was not educating their students enough in science and math, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, appropriating over $1 billion (an amazing amount of money at the time) to states for training and curricula development. Again in the 1980s, Wall Street and the U.S. government  panicked over the threats to our technology dominance posed by Japan and Europe — from cars to computers to transportation to aviation — and Congress began appropriating significant funding to the Department of Education for grants to states for technology and related educational requirements.

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Now, we once again find ourselves disadvantaged, and Congress knows it. The bipartisan effort to pass the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which will provide billions of dollars for STEM education, and which is in direct response to the perceived threats by China, is exactly on point. Playing catch-up is what we like to do best.   

But STEM education alone is not enough. As the world moves to reimagine how we manufacture, build, transport, operate, power or fuel just about everything we use or do, we need fully integrated climate literacy to drive innovation and jobs in all sectors. Numerous think tanks and corporate research efforts have pointed to the need for an educated and entrepreneurial workforce. We now have more than 3 million American workers in the clean tech industry, in jobs paying significantly higher minimum wage salaries than median minimum wage jobs, and those jobs are growing. Yet, we are not educating students to prepare for these jobs, ceding these opportunities to our global competitors and failing to nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs and scientists to design and engineer our way out of climate change and keep America on top. Nor are we building a green consumer movement to buy what our corporations are developing. Teaching climate literacy and connecting it to innovation, jobs and consumer campaigns can solve those problems.  

Environmental education itself has been chronically underfunded and a low priority for both Congress and most states — as well as the environmental community, despite receiving a major boost in 1970 when former President Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Education Act and called environmental literacy “vital” to U.S. interests. Given K-12 environmental education is state-controlled and, as a result, ranges from substantial environmental curriculum to climate denial, the average American high school student receives about 1.5 hours of climate education each year, graduating without understanding the science, the risks or the opportunities. 

Where do we begin? First, we should establish an office at the Department of Education focused on supporting — not mandating — climate education and related jobs training for states that are interested. With 4,000 employees dedicated to working with states to improve education and a long history of billions in grantmaking for cutting edge issues, the Department of Education should be the main focal point for climate literacy and innovation. Just as Congress did at other critical moments when the U.S. was playing catch-up, Congress should appropriate significant funding, at least an additional $5 billion a year for the next 10 years, for states to develop curriculum and jobs training. Universities and community colleges should also be the recipients of major funding to create new college majors and cutting-edge, climate-focused research and development projects. Dozens of other vehicles from the Every Student Succeeds Act to the America Competes Act are all appropriate vehicles for jobs training and education.  

Additionally, job training programs spread across dozens of other U.S. agencies could be funded to support programs for our nation’s poorest students and lowest paid workers. To encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs, the U.S. government and states should expand access and funding for innovation grants to high schools and colleges. And for the next generation of workers, we have vehicles to move money to job training programs, including the unfunded Green Jobs Act of 2007, which directs the Department of Labor to upskill incumbent workers and train the unemployed, veterans and disadvantaged youth. Fully funding existing legislative vehicles is a better option than sitting back on our heels while China, India and Europe surpass us.

American history is replete with instances when our education system played catch-up in the face of global competition. We are once again facing strong global competition on the green economy that will debilitate our effort to create the next generation of innovators and innovations and the jobs that come with them if we do not educate our students and workers. And this time, given the ravages of climate change, we are competing for more than our own economic survival. 

Kathleen Rogers is the president of Earthday.org.