Sarah S. Elkind: Energy Corporations in Schools: Then and Now

Elkind: How Local Politics Shape Federal PolicyWe welcome a blog post today from Sarah S. Elkind  author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los AngelesFocusing on five Los Angeles environmental policy debates between 1920 and 1950, Sarah Elkind investigates how practices in American municipal government gave business groups political legitimacy at the local level as well as unanticipated influence over federal politics.

Revealing the huge disparities between big business groups and individual community members in power, influence, and the ability to participate in policy debates, Elkind shows that business groups secured their political power by providing Los Angeles authorities with much-needed services, including studying emerging problems and framing public debates. As a result, government officials came to view business interests as the public interest. When federal agencies looked to local powerbrokers for project ideas and political support, local business interests influenced federal policy, too. 

In the following post, Elkind looks at how energy corporations are wielding their influence in the public school system and the dire consequences that will arise from it. 


Energy Corporations in Schools: Then and Now

In 1927, the Federal Trade Commission announced that America’s electric utility companies had spent the previous decade engaged in a concerted propaganda campaign against public ownership of electrical systems. The utilities subsidized academic research, planted newspaper editorials, and created curriculum for public schools all to bolster support for the private utility industry. This was, the Federal Trade Commission found, an astonishingly systematic, coordinated, and well-orchestrated campaign to change public opinion. It was also highly effective:  public support for government ownership of electrical power fell steadily in the 1930s in spite of these and other damning revelations and scandals.

Why did the National Electric Light Association and other utility trade groups work so hard to change public opinion in the 1910s and 1920s? In 1915, Congress required public development of hydroelectric power at all federal flood control and irrigation dams. Public support for government-owned utilities was at an all-time high. Cities invested in waterworks, gas and electrical grids, and transportation networks to improve public services and lower consumer costs. In New York, scandal erupted as a firm controlled by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon secured a lease to generate electricity at Niagara Falls. Debate raged, too, over whether the federal government should complete a massive hydroelectric power and fertilizer complex at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and whether the Bureau of Reclamation should build Hoover Dam. Private utilities spent over a million dollars a year (nearly fourteen million in 2017 dollars) to defeat Muscle Shoals and Hoover Dam, because they felt their future access to markets and water resources, their very survival, was at stake.

Today, fossil fuel companies have engaged in a similar propaganda war—funding questionable research, donating questionable curriculum to hard-pressed schools, and touting their contributions to the public welfare in advertising campaigns—for similar self-interested reasons. Recent reports out of Oklahoma exposed the oil and gas industry’s science curriculum and the incentives like fully-funded field trips and free supplies and lab equipment. This echoes a similar story about coal-funded classroom materials published and later withdrawn by Scholastic, Inc., in 2009. However, the stakes are much higher now than they were in the 1920s. Fracking threatens drinking water and ecosystems on a scale that far exceeds the impact of Muscle Shoals or Hoover Dam, and federal rules intended to protect water quality have been rescinded. Public school funding has declined, making corporate curriculum all the more attractive, yet the continued use and promotion of fossil fuels will exacerbate climate change.


Sarah S. Elkind is professor of history and former director of environmental studies at San Diego State University, and held the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark in 2010. She is author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles and Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston and Oakland, which won the Abel Wolman Prize from the Public Works Historical Society.