Oregon Voters Approve Funding for Outdoor School

Published January 7, 2017

Fifty-thousand Oregon 5th and 6th graders will attend Outdoor School each year now that voters have approved a ballot measure allocating state lottery money to the program.

Oregon’s Outdoor School, which sends middle school children to camp to learn about the outdoors, launched in 1957. Some districts chose to reduce or eliminate the program over the years, and participation dropped from about 90 percent of all middle school students to 50 percent.

Measure 99, the Outdoor School Lottery Fund Initiative, passed during the November 2016 general election by a 65–34 percent vote. Four percent of state lottery revenues, but no more than $22 million, will be dedicated to sending students to a week of Outdoor School each year.

Money Was Already Allocated

State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) says proponents of Measure 99 misrepresented where the money to pay for Outdoor School will come from.

“I think the way it was portrayed to the voters suggested lottery money is unallocated and simply waiting for some lofty purpose to be appropriated for, and that’s not true,” Johnson said. “The way this was described was that it was money put there by people who gambled and played the lottery, which suggested it had some taint to it and it was just sitting and waiting to be appropriated for lofty purposes. My first concern was the money is already functionally appropriated and it is not just money waiting to be tapped.”

Johnson says there are better uses for the lottery money.  

“My second concern is why we would pick a camping experience over other enrichments,” Johnson said. “Why not art for all, why not music for all, why not advanced physics for all, why not advanced calculus for all? Instead, we’re sending kids to camp, and I’ve got to be honest with you, to put out an opposition to sending kids to camp is not a particularly popular place to be, but I wanted to call attention to the fact this money is already subscribed and we are already taking it from very noble purposes and sending all the little kids to camp.”

Lottery a ‘Slush Fund’

Steve Buckstein, a senior policy analyst and founder of The Cascade Policy Institute in Oregon, says the state should get out of the lottery business.

“The lottery is just a slush fund, basically, that people tug at,” Buckstein said. “Originally it was for economic development, and now it’s for a whole bunch of other things, including education, veterans’ programs, and now, apparently, outdoor schools. We’ve advocated that the state shouldn’t be in the lottery business, period. They should privatize the lottery and get rid of the legal prohibition and monopoly the state has for those kinds of games. We don’t like that they run a lottery, and it’s sort of an official wish list for other people to find things they like, and the legislature puts it on the ballot and people say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea!'”

‘Whole Generation of Environmentalists’

Johnson says she’s concerned the Outdoor School curriculum will present a biased view of what conservation means.  

“I represent the Tillamook County Creamery Association, the home of Tillamook Cheese, and I’m worried that if the curriculum for the camping experience is written by people whose views are antithetical to the wise use of natural resources, we’ll create a whole generation of environmentalists who don’t understand that you can still use and still conserve natural resources if prudently managed,” Johnson said. “And so I’m quite worried about the imposition of a bias into the curriculum of impressionable 5th and 6th graders.”

‘Prefer Parents Have School Choice’

Buckstein says school choice would resolve the debate over Outdoor School.

“We much prefer parents have school choice so they can decide if they want to send their kids to a school with outdoor education or any other opportunities,” Buckstein said. “What this [vote] basically says is every kid should have an outdoor experience, so let’s mandate it.”   

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.