This past weekend, coal company executives convened for the annual West Virginia Coal Association meeting in White Sulphur Springs, WV. The event, which was closed to the public, was held at the lavish Greenbrier Resort, where an overnight stay can cost upwards of $6,000 (plus tax). One panelist at the meeting, state Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, pointed out the exclusivity of the resort hotel: “I used to drive by the Greenbrier often when I was young, but I never had the money to come in because I’m a former coal miner.”
During the event, over 100 attendees collaborated on issues from hiring industry lobbyists to fighting federal regulations. However, one of the biggest concerns on the minds of coal executives was how to ensure children would be taught an industry-friendly approach to coal issues in the classroom.
During a membership meeting attended by ThinkProgress, attendees took the opportunity to vent about their poor public perception and accused teachers of turning children against them. One coal executive, Jim Bunn, summed up the general sentiment:
BUNN: There’s so much negativity in the classroom, and I really don’t understand that. I can tell you that every industry has negatives throughout. I don’t care what it is. The education system has negatives. We need to get them to understand that we are not Darth Vader, we are good people. We’re just like you in that we come to work every morning.
West Virginia Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin concurred, saying, “I agree with you that those kind of programs could be expanded” because West Virginia children are being unduly influenced by “what they hear on the national news…on how bad coal is.” Coal executives and state legislators continued their mutual admiration for changing the state curriculum to be more pro-industry. A coal executive named Joe proposed the idea of a statewide “Coal Day”:
JOE: There’s a West Virginia labor day recognized in public schools. I think something like that could work in the coal context as well. Pick a day of the year that West Virginia public schools would discuss mining, its concept, its history, its contribution to the state of West Virginia. Food for thought.
STATE SENATE ENERGY, INDUSTRY & MINING CHAIRMAN MIKE GREEN: I remember in the 8th grade getting a lot of information about coal, about the history of coal. Is that still being done?
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER: Actually, it’s just the opposite. They get taught how bad coal is in our schools.
Some at the meeting weren’t satisfied with just a single day devoted to coal. A coal executive named Michael went further, proposing an entire week of coal-friendly lessons for kids:
MICHAEL: Is there a way for the legislature to have a course ‘natural resource week,’ where coal, natural gas, other topics can be taught? We have national history week in this country, everybody creates a national week of something. Is there a way to create a standards of learning that the legislature would passed that the activists could not keep out of the schools so we could get that education across?”
GREEN: I think we should. I think that’s a great idea. I think we need to check with our colleagues in Virginia and see if we can get that done. I don’t think my colleagues disagree with that, do you? [All shook their heads in agreement.]
The coal industry has indeed made headway in altering West Virginia’s classrooms. In October 2009, the Raleigh County school board approved “a pro-coal curriculum designed by retired teachers and the Friends of Coal Ladies Auxiliary.” As part of the curriculum, fourth-graders at Stratton Elementary were taken on a field trip to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine where each student was given “a coloring book, compliments of the auxiliary, illustrating how coal is mined and how it is burned for energy.”
One of the groups that has made significant progress enacting a pro-coal curriculum is Friends of Coal, the coal industry group that sponsored the Greenbrier retreat. Its education affiliate, CEDAR (Coal Education Development and Resource of Southern West Virginia, Inc.), is a “partnership between the coal industry, business community and educators.” Its stated mission is “to facilitate the increase of knowledge and understanding of the many benefits the coal industry provides in daily lives by providing financial resources and coal education materials to implement its study in the school curriculum.”
With coal industry executives united in this effort, and state legislators working on their behalf to implement such changes, West Virginia’s revisionist education curriculum may soon put even Texas to shame.