Above: School Committee members Alyson Powell and Anne Musella testify Wednesday before the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare.

The hearing room was standing room only for testimony on field trip funding legislation.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

School Committee members Anne Musella and Alyson Powell were the first people to testify at a hearing before the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare on proposed legislation to clarify how field trips can be paid for, urging equity for poorer students as well as clarification on how money can be raised.

The East Greenwich School Committee’s decision to seek an advisory opinion from the state Department of Education last year resulted in outgoing RIDE Commissioner Ken Wagner’s opinion that schools, not parents, must fund school trips. That sparked confusion among school districts across the state and cancellation of many trips this past fall.

Even in East Greenwich, where the School Committee had a big head start and had passed comprehensive policies that would allow for fundraising and donations to offset field trip costs, some teachers did not put in for trips normally undertaken because of a fear they were not permitted.

Musella and Powell said they wanted to testify because of the “hours and hours” of work the East Greenwich School Committee has done. They also submitted written testimony which included the signature of fellow committee member Matt Plain (Field Trip Testimony, 1-29-20).

Musella warned the panel against allowing for pay-to-play situations, where families with deep pockets can pay for special trips or programs that are too expensive for other students. 

She elaborated, citing her own experience as a child growing up as a “have not” in Detroit. 

“Because of field trips, I was afforded some of the same opportunities my well-off friends had, like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and national tours of Broadway shows … in addition to every fifth grader’s highlight of the year, which was a trip to the Toronto Science Center, by train. I would never have had those opportunities outside of school.”

Then Musella added a cautionary note. 

“You will continue to hear, as we have, that no one who has wanted to go on a field trip has been left behind. That may be true, that no student who has come forward asking for financial assistance to go on a field trip was ever denied [but] it’s also true that many more students wanted to go on a field trip but did not ask, out of shame, out of embarrassment or reasons of privacy. I’ve spoken with many parents in our community for which this is true.”

“No child or their family should be put in the position to have to ask,” Musella said.

Powell said the panel should focus on including guidance on how to implement field trip funding policies.  

“I urge you, no matter what language you choose to write, to really work cooperatively with RIDE, school committees and districts to come up with a toolkit for districts to use.”

More than two dozen other people testified before the House panel Wednesday, including NEARI (teachers union) president Larry Purtill, head of the RI Music Education Association Toni Silveira, and Pot au Feu owner Bob Burke, founder of the Providence Independence Trail. All spoke in favor of the legislation.