SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The South Kingstown School Committee has joined the leagues of many other districts across the state in beginning to reconsider its field trip policies.
With one foot out the door, now former Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner delivered an advisory opinion last month stating that it is not legal for school districts to charge fees for school-related trips. The opinion, which was given to the East Greenwich School Committee on April 10, laid out three permissible ways for schools to fund trips – none of which required students to pay.
South Kingstown Assistant Superintendent Pauline Lisi informed the members of the school committee at Tuesday night’s meeting that new policy language should be coming forward in the near future.
“Our current policy does not incorporate the new language into it, and we’ll be having our legal update the policy to align with the new regulations,” she said.
According to Lisi, schools will no longer be able to charge fees for field trips. Any such trips from here on out will need to be budgeted by the school department.
In the advisory opinion delivered by Wagner, “the district may budget funds for trips, so long as the trip is part of the instructional program and all students have the same ability to attend.”
Fundraising for trips is still permissible, however. According to Lisi, it is allowed as long as “individual students do not have fundraising targets that must be met as a requirement for participation.”
The only fees individuals may be charged, according to the third permissible way to fund trips in Wagner’s opinion, are for those that occur outside the school day and without “using district resources, including district-funded staff time,” meaning teachers cannot be chaperones for these trips on a school day.
“In the meantime, until our policy has been updated, a couple of things have been happening,” Lisi said. “If we’ve already taken a deposit for a field trip, we’re allowing the field trip to go on with the collection of the money. The other thing is that if the money was already collected before the ruling came out, we’re allowing the field trip to go on.”
It’s Lisi’s understanding that any field trips that fall outside this scope will be funded by Parent-Teacher Organizations (PTOs).
School committee member Emily Cummiskey stressed that the policy change was due to a RIDE regulation.
“This has nothing to do with the school committee,” she said. “Any fundraising that goes on with the PTOs in the future to support field trips, that’s a separate issue. This is not a school committee issue. I think that it’s very, very important for students to be aware of that, for teachers to be aware of that and for the community to be aware of that.”
Currently, according to the South Kingstown Field Trip Handbook, “no student shall be prevented from participating in a field trip because of a lack of sufficient funds or for not participating in fundraising activities. No trip shall be authorized if any student would be excluded from participation because of a lack of sufficient funds.”
Field trips are also prohibited from being required for a course grade, and students cannot be kept from participating due to financial circumstance, disability or lack of school funds. Any trip that would result in a student being excluded in such a manner cannot be authorized.
The intent of the new policy is that it will further prevent students from being left out.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and Rhode Island Legal Services have issued statements alleging that school districts in the state had a long history of attempting to charge illegal fees for field trips, saying that the practice interferes in students’ rights to access a free and equal education in the public school system.
Wagner stated that low-income families should not have to face concern over whether or not their children can participate in such trips.
The issue of requiring students to pay fees for field trips, especially for those that are directly tied into the student’s curriculum, has been a long withstanding issue in the East Greenwich School District, which requested an opinion from the Rhode Island Department of Education in September of 2018. Several members of the East Greenwich School Committee, particularly Matt Plain, have long believed that public school education should be free and that no student should have to pay to receive a fair and equitable education.
The eighth-grade annual trip to Washington, D.C., which costs East Greenwich students and their families $1,200, was at the heart of the committee’s request to RIDE. This year, the trip was not recognized by the school committee for the first time in nearly two decades. Many parents were upset by the committee’s vote, which was taken before the advisory opinion was delivered but after deposits had already been collected.
Current Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who stepped into her new role on April 29, has been asked by several superintendents for clarification on the guidance from Wagner, according to reports from Channel 10. Spokesperson Megan Geoghegan informed Channel 10 that there is an appeal process to challenge the policy, and Infante-Green may have to make a decision on a future case. If this is the case, Infante-Green does not want to prejudice any ruling she might make.