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Education Reporter

The No Child Left Inside Act: 'No Child Left Alone'
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The U.S. House of Representatives passed the No Child Left Inside Act (NCLI) by a vote of 293 to 109 on September 18. The Senate has yet to consider NCLI, but the NCLI coalition of 830 state and national groups has high hopes for the bill's passage in the near future.

If passed, NCLI will promote "environmental education" in America's K-12 schools. It will reauthorize the National Environmental Education Act (NEEA) of 1990, and increase spending on that act by $5 million. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that NCLI would increase discretionary spending by $24 million over the next three years.

In the shadow of the $7 billion bailout, $24 million for environmental education may hardly seem worth bothering to protest. Yet critics object to the bill on a variety of grounds.

The most basic problem with NCLI for many conservatives is that it would require schools to comply with more federal mandates to receive government funds. These mandates have little to nothing to do with knowledge in core subjects, which is still what the vast majority of parents want public schools to provide for their children.

NCLI would give teachers and schools financial incentives to conduct environmental activities during class time, and to promote such ill-defined aims as "environmental justice" and "improved self-esteem." The self-esteem movement has been thoroughly discredited, so it is disappointing to see this outmoded, circa-1990 idea crop up again in federal legislation.

Some critics object to the emphasis NCLI places on global warming - now renamed "climate change," apparently because most parts of the globe are no longer warming, and many are cooling. NCLI identifies climate change as a "major challenge" facing the United States, and promotes lessons on climate change in schools. The law makes no provision ensuring that lessons on climate change will be scientifically rigorous, non-ideological, or free from partisan propaganda.

'The Wrong Way'

The NCLI coalition of 830 groups says that children would be better off if they spent more time outside, and blames "nature deficit disorder" for some of the attention disorders observed in recent generations of students. There is good evidence to support both claims. But Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology who blogs for Psychology Today, called NCLI "an example of the wrong way to solve a national problem." Gray believes NCLI exemplifies the way of thinking that has caused the very problems the law attempts to solve. "Schools suck the fun out of everything they teach. Do we want schools now to suck the fun out of outdoor adventure?" he asks.

At Playborhood.com, an online community of parents who want to restore free, unstructured play to the lives of American children (not by government mandate), parents' voices second Dr. Gray's objections to NCLI. Playborhood founder (and "Chief Play Officer") Mike Lanza blames schools — the lengthening school year, the lengthening school day, and the emphasis on organized sports at the expense of free play — for children's alienation from nature and a number of other problems. Bans on tag and other traditional games on school playgrounds, and frequently the elimination of recess itself, fit right in with these trends.

Lanza cites a recent study from Cornell University that examined what kinds of activities inspire "environmental behaviors" (spending time outside) and "environmental attitudes" (caring about nature) as children grow up. Environmental education in school, scouts, or other settings did not significantly predict children's behaviors or attitudes as adults, but time they spent actually outside in nature did.

"This Act feels a lot like the 'pork' that our elected officials are supposed to be targeting to get our federal budget in control," concludes Lanza. If passed, NCLI, which Lanza dubs "No Child Left Alone," will put more federal dollars toward school activities of questionable value and toward what Playborhood identifies as the "ultra-structured, adult-mediated" approach to American childhood today.

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