The Westerly Sun

PROVIDENCE — Following a policy change last year by former Education Commissioner Ken Wagner that prohibited school districts from charging students for field trips, most public schools stopped offering them. 

The House Health, Education and Welfare Committee is currently holding hearings on a bill that would permit school districts to request money for field trips, as long as the districts cover any remaining deficits. The first hearing took place on Jan. 29.

Introduced by Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, D-Warwick, who chairs the committee, the bill, H-7069, would “allow a school district to assess or request a contribution of money from a student or the student’s parent or legal guardian to pay, in whole or in part, for the cost of district-sponsored field trips, dances, and clubs.”

The rationale behind Wagner’s policy change, which was supported by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was that field trips were an matter of equity. It was felt that students in economically disadvantaged school districts would not be able to participate in field trips because they could not afford the fees. However, McNamara said Wagner’s policy had actually made the situation worse.

“I know that the unintended consequences of the former commissioner’s interpretation of this law have had an adverse effect on students from lower income communities, and when we see great works like Trinity’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ down by 2,000 students as a result of that, ironically, the students who aren’t attending are those from communities that have higher levels of poverty and the decision has had an adverse effect on them.”

Jane Daly, interim superintendent of the Chariho Regional School District, said her district’s solution to the problem has been to increase the field trip budget.

“Understanding that field trips are wonderful opportunities for students to expand their learning, Chariho has historically provided for at least one field trip per student in the elementary grades,” she said. “However, since last year’s ruling from RIDE, our budget of $16,504 for field trips in fiscal year 2020 is now at $61,190 for fiscal year 2021. In this way we can provide fair and equitable opportunities for students in grades K through 12 to take part in these educational experiences;  however, it does place a burden on our budget and is an unfunded mandate from the state.”

McNamara said he hoped the committee could complete work on the bill before the start of the Rhode Island Philharmonic’s student program, which begins in March.

“I see this as a real priority and the timing is very important,” he said. “So, we’re moving as quickly as possible on it.”

Daly said she hoped the issue would be resolved soon. “Proposed legislation on the funding of field trips is an important topic for our representatives to decide, as it will have a continued impact on our budget and on our ability to provide students with an enriching and enhanced education,” she said.

 

cdrummond@thewesterlysun.com

@cynthiadrummon4

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