By Hilary Corrigan

The Bulletin

A “yes” vote would create a separate Outdoor School Education Fund for a statewide outdoor school program, financed through the Oregon Lottery Economic Development Fund — with a cap on the annual lottery money for the fund — and administered by Oregon State University. The program would provide every Oregon fifth- or sixth-grade student with a weeklong outdoor school program.

A “no” vote would reject such a fund’s creation and retain existing law. Currently, Oregon does not fund a statewide outdoor school program. OSU helps school districts by awarding grants for such efforts.

A measure on the Nov. 8 ballot meant to fund outdoor school for all Oregon’s students has morphed into a debate on economic benefits, both near term and long.

Few seem to oppose Measure 99’s goal of providing outdoor school, but the funding method to do so has drawn objections.

Outdoor School has existed in Oregon since the late 1950s, providing a field program for students to study natural sciences. It lacks a dedicated state funding source, but Oregon State University helps school districts by awarding grants.

Measure 99 qualified for the November ballot through a signature petition. It calls for creating the Outdoor School Education Fund within the state treasury, made up largely of money from the Oregon State Lottery Fund. In July 2017, the outdoor fund would start getting up to $22 million of lottery money per year. The money would provide every fifth- or sixth-grader in the state the chance to attend a weeklong outdoor school program or similar experience.

Proponents have touted the chance to ensure students get hands-on experience outside while learning natural sciences and other subjects; and build skills like leadership and self-sufficiency. Opponents have complained the measure would shift lottery money that currently funds economic development efforts throughout Oregon, resulting in harm to communities and families.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, objected to that shift in funds in a ballot statement.

“What does a week of camp have to do with economic development?” Johnson asked.

The nonprofit corporation Economic Development for Central Oregon has opposed the measure. So has the Oregon Economic Development Association, warning that it would take money that now helps create jobs by helping existing companies stay and expand in Oregon. Such economic development support helps small businesses and communities across Oregon, and those jobs bring more income tax to the state, the association argued.

Jon Stark, EDCO senior manager for Redmond Economic Development Inc., and the vice president of economic development for the Oregon Economic Development Association, stressed that the association supports outdoor school itself and its contributions to the outdoor lifestyle. Stark noted that his own children have attended.

But the measure’s funding mechanism would carve into the 27 percent of the lottery funding that economic development now gets, competing with efforts to create jobs and help businesses and resulting in harm to Oregon communities and families who benefit from such efforts, he argued.

“Lottery funds have been whittled away over the years,” Stark said.

The City Club of Portland did not take a stance on the measure. But the majority of a City Club of Portland committee last month recommended supporting it. In a report, the majority touted the benefit to Oregon students, the broader investment in science education and economic development for rural areas as reasons to support the measure despite a possible reduction in economic development advocacy efforts from the shift in lottery funds. The report noted research showing that a one-week program for 50,000 students could generate more than 600 full-time-equivalent jobs and more than $27 million in annual income. The report also pointed to overall benefits from the program preparing students for a workforce that increasingly values environmental and science-literate workers.

Michael Gassner, program lead and senior instructor for the tourism and outdoor leadership program at OSU-Cascades, said outdoor school provides long-term benefits — especially for the Bend area — by educating more people on outdoor issues.

“I look at it more as an investment,” said Gassner, who attended outdoor school as a child and whose daughter attended last year.

He pointed to resulting health and wellness benefits from spending time outside. He also pointed to his own students who wind up working in outdoor fields. Gassner is now conducting a study in Singapore about the long-term impacts of outdoor education for students.

While the lottery money may not offer the ideal source for funding, it’s what’s available now, Gassner said.

The measure’s campaign has touted the ability for outdoor school to help bolster healthier lifestyles that can lead to lower health care costs. It has also emphasized a 2015 Portland State University report that links outdoor programs that last several days with better school attendance rates — a key indicator of academic success.

Lee Stevenson, a Sunriver resident and retired science teacher, leads a ponderosa potting effort with fourth-graders at Three Rivers Elementary School in Sunriver every year. Students call him “Tree Man.”

Stevenson supports the measure and outdoor school as a way to help more children explore and enjoy the outdoors, learn about their surroundings and value that environment. Stevenson also calls the age range that outdoor school targets an impressionable one to teach students about the outdoors, pointing to a narrow window “to get them pumped about this.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,