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A girl works on an Earth Day project.Davide Zanin/Getty
This story was originally published by Gristand is reproduced here as part of the Climate Deskcollaboration.
Carolyn McGrath thought she was ready for her testimony in front of the New Jersey Department of Education. An art teacher, she had dressed in a jaunty polka-dot blouse and chunky green necklace, and had a written statement prepared in favor of teaching climate change in every school subject.
She hadn’t expected any controversy. But by the time it was her turn to walk to the podium last month, she was so nervous she visibly shook. “It was such an uncomfortable situation,” she said later. “I don’t like confrontation.”
McGrath is passionate about teaching climate change; she’s given her students assignments like creating portraits of climate activists. So she was delighted this past fall, when the state of New Jersey joined the global vanguard in climate education. New Jersey is the first state in America to adopt standards for learning about climate change in each grade, from K through 12, and across several different subjects, even physical education.
Initially these additions didn’t draw much political heat, possibly because sex education standards were being updated at the same time. But this year, the standards in the core subjects of math and English language arts came up for revision. Proposed draft revisions also include climate change. This is important, advocates say, because these are the core subjects that students are tested on, and for which schools and districts are held accountable.
And this time was different. At the May 3 public hearing, in front of two members of the State Board of Education, supporters of the changes, including McGrath, were blindsided and well outnumbered by organized right-wing activists who testified against teaching climate change.
It’s one meeting, but it could be a bellwether. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, school boards have become ground zero for the culture wars, as they have been at times throughout American history. Right-wing activists tapped into discontent over school closures, growing awareness of LGTBQ+ rights, and the backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement. The resulting brouhaha has buoyed many political fortunes, notably that of Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Now this same political machine may be turning its focus to climate education, just as the movement to teach it is getting off the ground.