Oregon Outdoor School Funding Up for Approval in November

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

If Oregonians approve an expected bill on the November ballot, every fifth- or sixth-grade student in the state would be sent to a week-long, overnight, outdoor school. If the initiative passes, Oregon will become the first state to fund outdoor schools for all its pupils.

Lilian Mongeau writes in an article produced by The Hechinger Report, which is a nonprofit, independent news organization that focuses on innovation and inequality in education, that students in Crook County, Oregon could not afford to attend a for-profit camp. Approximately two-thirds of the district’s pupils qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

But if the state’s voters approve Initiative 67, up to 4%, or a maximum of $22 million a year, of unallocated Oregon Lottery monies would be given to the Oregon State University Extension Service to be administered.

Any district in the state could apply for assistance in running, setting up, and paying for an “outdoor school.” These schools will aim at scientific exploration and the growth of life skills. Funding for this endeavor would not affect any existing lottery-funded services for parks, education, or wildlife.

The first outdoor school in the state was created in 1957. Southern Oregon College Professor Irene Hollenbeck led a group of students and teachers from Medford, Oregon in a weeklong outdoor school program.

After asking for and receiving funding from a federal grant under the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, outdoor schools have become an Oregonian institution. Sarah Bodor, director of policy for the North American Association for Environmental Education, says schools need to give young people:

“… a basic environmental literacy, a basic understanding of how Earth systems and human systems interact, and how decisions individuals make will impact those systems.”

Environmental programs that serve children best, according to Bodor, are ones that teach kids:

“[H]ow to think critically about complex issues and much less about what to think.”

The Associated Press reports that advocates of the program say the schools would create new jobs in rural areas and would benefit students through enriched educational experiences. This measure, in the long term, would even create better employees for the state, say some.

Critics such as state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) say the initiative would divert funds that are already being used for significant economic development. But supporters have already pointed out that the funding will come from unallocated lottery funds.

However, Tom Nelson, economic development manager for the city of Corvallis, disagreed with the notion that the funds are unallocated. Nelson said that the legislature had maintained the practice of sending the money to Business Oregon, which is the state’s business development department.

But Paige Richardson, a supporter of the bill, said the measure is giving voters a choice between two approaches to economic development. Outdoor schooling will also create better-educated citizens who can benefit the economy over the long-term.

Outdoor school is like summer camp during the school year, writes Chris Lehman for Oregon Public Radio. Kids get real experiences in natural science and conservation. Unfortunately, as years have passed, fewer districts are offering the curriculum, or offer it for fewer days each year.