We need to be more like Massachusetts. If every Rhode Islander had a nickel for every time we’ve heard that, our piggy banks would runneth over. But the truth is, when it comes to our schools, Rhode Island absolutely missed the boat by not following in Massachusetts footsteps sooner and our children—and our economy—continue to pay a high price.
But whenever budget time rolls around for school districts, we become keenly aware of one major difference between Rhode Island and Massachusetts that exists in state law. Rhode Island has a law that doesn’t allow for school districts to charge parents for sports or busing the way that Massachusetts schools can. And now, according to a recent opinion issued by outgoing education commissioner, Ken Wagner, field trips are off limits too.
Here’s the crux of the statute (General Law 16-38-6 (a)):
No public school official or public school employee shall, for any purpose, solicit or extract from any pupil in any public school any contribution or gift of money or any article of value, or any pledge to contribute any money or article of value.
Asking parents to pitch in for the end of the year trip to Six Flags? Illegal. The annual—though optional—7th grade trip to Washington DC? Illegal. Having families pay $5 for the bus ride so that their children can sing at the statehouse? Illegal. The band trip to Florida where the musicians have the opportunity to compete against school bands from all over the country? Illegal.
Trips that require a single dollar from parents are, it turns out, against the law and now that the state department of education has issued an official—albeit non-binding—legal opinion, my district rushed to fall in line with the law.
But the truth is, a quick read of the state law that is now blowing up field trips clearly reveals that districts all over the state are violating the statute all over the place. In just a few weeks, parents will be spending a fortune on school supplies that are required by their children’s teachers. Athletes who play school sports will spend money on cleats. And running sneakers. And basketball shoes. And hockey equipment. And baseball bats. And golf clubs. Musicians who play in the band will be expected to arrive with their instruments in hand—an instrument they have paid to rent or purchased. Parents will burn through gas driving their children to and from school sponsored events, activities, practices, and games. Dance tickets will be sold. All of this will be money that is “solicited or extracted from pupils in a public school.”
One has to wonder if it’s even acceptable for the school to send home order forms or email solicitations for school pictures and yearbooks. I am positive that there are parents out there who would rather have picture day cancelled than their kids’ field trips.
Equity has not been achieved if everyone gets nothing. The school committee has, at least for the time being, stripped all students of enriching opportunities and experiences, including those whose only chance for a top notch trip to DC was with their school. Parents, including those who saved up money in advance to be able to send their children on a school trip to the nation’s capital, are now being told that the trip is cancelled and their money will be refunded. And all of the fundraising they’ve done to be able to go? Now a moot point.
This is all because our elected school committee members—with the best of intentions— have decided that a non-binding legal opinion on which the ink is barely dry is grounds to immediately cancel trips for which students have already registered and paid. In fairness to the committee, their vote was informed by the recommendations of the superintendent and the attorneys who advise them. For some districts this will barely be a blip on the radar because they already cover all field trip expenses—but those are districts who are able to spend $6,000 more per pupil and seemingly don’t sponsor any overnight trips. For some districts, this will require major changes.
When I was a young teacher—before I got married and became a mom— I chaperoned groups of students overseas on a three week exchange program. Twice, a teacher colleague and I traveled to Spain with a group of about 15 juniors and seniors, many of whom were in my class at the time. We spent the first few days in Madrid and the surrounding areas and then headed north where the students lived with families for a little over two weeks. One of the students who desperately wanted to come on the second trip did not have the money to go—but the travel company offered scholarships and I was successful in securing one for her. It is impossible for me to imagine her saying, then or now, that we should have cancelled the trip because she couldn’t pay. But had my students and I been in Rhode Island at the time, that trip—that experience—would have been against the law.
It’s hard to see how that makes any sense. To quote an old friend I talked to earlier today, “sometimes in the pursuit of fairness to all, we act quite unfairly.”
The law needs to be changed.