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Kochs & Cronies Conspire To Corrupt Elementary School Curriculum

The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board is funded by the oil and gas industry to create teaching materials that laud petroleum products in elementary schools. Is what it does any different than feeding children carcinogens?

The most sinister force in public education in America’s heartland goes by the rather benign name of the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. OERB is funded by a one-tenth of 1% surcharge on all the oil and gas produced within the state. It uses the money to turn out a broad array of so-called “educational materials” for elementary school students in the Sooner State.

Petro Pete In Elementary School

One of them is picture book entitled Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream. Recently, two local Republican lawmakers — Tom Gann and Marty Quinn — donned coats and ties to read the book to 1st grade students at Jefferson Elementary School in Pryor, Oklahoma. In the story, Petro Pete awakes to find his toothbrush, hard hat, and bicycle tires are missing. The poor lad is forced to walk to his school in Petroville wearing nothing but his jammies because he has missed the school bus.

At this critical juncture in Petro Pete’s young life, Mrs. Rigwell, the children’s teacher, cries out, “It sounds like you’re missing all of your petroleum by-products today!” Pete decides that “having no petroleum is like a nightmare.” Over the past 10 years, OERB has spent about $40 million on its library of curriculum materials. To date, more than 15,000 teachers in Oklahoma have been trained by OERB how to incorporate industry friendly messages into their teaching.

Recently, an OERB workshop at Choctaw High School, near Oklahoma City, loaded teachers up with as much as $1,200 worth of calculators, lab equipment, and other materials. In the classrooms, some teachers used their new calculators to plot oil production trend. Others watched bubbling brews that simulated how oil companies wring more production out of depleted wells.

Other States Join The Fossil Fuel Party

The Guardian, where we ran across the info above, goes on: “A similar program in Ohio shows teachers how to ‘frack’ Twinkies using straws to pump for cream to emulate shale drilling. A national program sponsored by companies including BP and Shell claims it’s too soon to tell if the earth is heating up, but ‘a little warming might be a good thing’.

“Decades of documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity reveal a tightly woven network of organizations that works in concert with the oil and gas industry to paint a rosy picture of fossil fuels in America’s classrooms. Led by advertising and public-relations strategists, the groups have long plied the tools of their trade on impressionable children and teachers desperate for resources.”

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, says the industry-sponsored curriculum ignores climate science and is little more than straightout advertising. “You’re exploiting that trusted relationship between the student and the teacher,” he claims.

Influencing Elementary School Minds Since the 1940s

Warping young elementary school minds has been an integral part of the oil and gas industry’s agenda since the ’40s. In the ’60s, the American Petroleum Institute made it its mission to cultivate a network of “thought leaders,” including educators, journalists, politicians, and even members of the clergy, according to an official history of the API in 1990. API is funded in part by Americans For Prosperity, an arm of Koch Industries, according to KochVsClean.

Today, there are hundreds of industry-friendly curriculum materials available online. OERB teaching materials are used in up to 98% of Oklahoma school districts and have been adopted in neighboring Kansas.

Meanwhile, legislation has been pushed in Montana, Arkansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Texas to teach climate science denial.

A 2016 study published in the magazine Science confirmed that teachers in America receive “mixed messages” on climate change. It gets better. As The Guardian reports, “Nearly a third of middle-and-high-school science teachers nationwide have wrongly suggested global warming is naturally occurring. A quarter have spent as much time rebutting evidence of warming as they have presenting it.”

An Education Director With No Teaching Experience

Carla Schaeperkoetter is OERB’s education director. Typical of most people involved in the industry-financed program, she does not have any teaching experience. That didn’t stop her from creating “Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream” or “Lab Time with Leo” — a video series featuring a scientist who resembles Bill Nye the Science Guy, but doesn’t have his grasp of climate science.

“Schaeperkoetter doesn’t have any teaching experience and isn’t a state employee. Board staff, including Schaeperkoetter, are consultants hired by a private foundation affiliated with the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association. The state trade group is listed as a partner of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a lobbying organization that worked closely with API to roll back federal rules on fracking.

“Schaeperkoetter’s name appears on curriculums reassuring teachers that ‘companies are spending more dollars protecting the environment than drilling new wells.’ A jump-rope rhyme reads, ‘We need oil. We need gas. Where are the oil products in our class?’ And a high school guide asks students to create 30-second commercials on how ‘oil and natural gas will help America be energy independent’.”

Underfunded Public Education “Saved” By Private Industry

It is the ultimate irony that school districts are going to four day a week schedules as a result of budget cuts attributable in part to tax breaks for the petroleum industry. “The state government of Oklahoma, in its wisdom, has decided that oil and gas companies should have a whole lot of money and schools should have hardly any money,” Anderson said. “That’s a social decision that values oil and gas extraction over the public good of public schools.”

It also allows oil & gas companies to swoop in, offer teachers supplies and teaching materials, and save their day. What’s in the teaching materials? Oh, good stuff — even the teachers are learning something, so it must be good for the kids. Those good-hearted oil companies — always looking out for the ones in need.

No State Oversight

Anne Price, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma department of education, claims the OERB curriculum materials are developed in a “collaborative effort” with that department, but then admits that state officials have “not reviewed, endorsed or had any oversight” over these OERB teaching materials in two decades. “We value curricula that align to our state standards and are at no cost to educators, but ultimately we encourage educators to investigate further to choose what is best for their classrooms,” Price says.

Dumb Elementary School Kids Make For Dumb Adults

Oklahoma is renowned for electing scientific know nothings to political office. In addition to Scott Pruitt, whose emails reveal he was in bed with fossil fuel interests and anxious to do their bidding while serving as Oklahoma’s attorney general, the state is represented in the US Congress by James Inhofe, the infamous Senator Snowball who brought a snowball in a plastic bag onto the floor of the Senate to “prove” that global warming is a “hoax.”

Inhofe is a proud graduate of the elementary school system in Oklahoma. According to Newsweek, he complained to a local talk show host last year that kids today are being brainwashed on the subject of climate change. “You know, our kids are being brainwashed? I never forget because I was the first one back in 2002 to tell the truth about the global warming stuff and all of that. And my own granddaughter came home one day and said, ‘Popi … why is it you don’t understand global warming?’ I did some checking and … the stuff that they teach our kids nowadays, you have to un-brainwash them when they get out.”

Elementary school education is inherently political, says Nicole Colston, a researcher at Oklahoma State University. She has studied the overlap that exists between groups that oppose teaching evolution and climate change. “It’s this implied thing that you can’t talk about climate change,” she said, following a round of interviews with Oklahoma teachers. “It’s almost, like, impolite or uncomfortable.”

Editorial Comment

I have been critiqued in the past for sometimes allowing my personal feelings to leak into my articles. I plead guilty to that charge and have made a resolution to confine my remarks to areas that are clearly designated as editorial input. If you don’t wish to be subjected to my opinions, please do not read beyond this point.

How is what the oil and gas industry — which necessarily involves Koch Industries — is doing any different than Coca Cola writing teaching materials that encourage young students to drink more Coke? How is it different than if Frito Lay did the same thing to boost sales of Doritos? How would parents in Oklahoma feel if agents of the alcohol or tobacco industry started indoctrinating their children into the pleasures of drinking and smoking?

It’s a pretty safe bet that if these same children came home from school talking about how humans evolved from lower animals or started discussing sex, (oh, the horror!), the parents would become a howling mob and assault the school, the teachers, and the administration with torches and pitchforks. But for some reason, they are perfectly at ease with their educational system acting as a prostitute for the fossil fuel industry.

OERB now has a library of books, teaching materials, and after-school programs all designed to lure youngsters into praying at an altar constructed by the fossil fuel industry. If someone attempted to educate these same children in a similar way about homosexuality, gay marriage, AIDS, the Muslim religion, or gender bias, they would be hustled off to jail.

Are the fossil fuel companies acting any differently than child pornographers? Both exploit children for financial gain. And aren’t the parents involved in a form of child abuse by allowing their children to be indoctrinated by a state-supported cult?

You may think my judgment harsh, but it will take more than polite niceties to open people’s eyes to the unethical behavior of the fossil fuel industry. OERB argues that this sort of “education” helps prepare future workers to find employment in Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry, but that doesn’t explain why it has to involve elementary school students.

Surely these are proper subjects for technical training after high school. Until then, young people need to be taught how to think, not mindlessly regurgitate doctrinaire platitudes foisted upon them by greedy corporations. The hypocrisy of the fossil fuel industry and compliant education officials is simply staggering.


This article is sourced from The Guardian, which began is coverage with the following statement: This story was a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Oklahoma, a reporting project of NPR member stations in Oklahoma.

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