KDE: School field trips must be “direct extension of classroom learning;” not appropriate for outside groups to dictate whether Ark park trip meets criteria

KSBA eNews Service, Frankfort, July 12, 2016

State says districts should follow board, council rules regarding Freedom from Religion letter on field trips
By Brad Hughes

The Kentucky Department of Education weighed in late Monday on the issue of school field trips to a new religion-based theme park in the state, saying the matter is a local decision but also cautioning that the educational purpose of such excursions is a key factor.

In the agency’s Commissioner’s Monday Message, KDE said it has received several inquiries seeking guidance from superintendents who have received a letter from “one or more outside interest groups regarding the appropriateness of student field trips to certain venues in Kentucky.”

Over the weekend, news media outlets reported that the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation had sent letters to more than 1,000 schools in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia, advising against school-approved field trips to the new Ark Encounter theme park outside Williamsburg in Grant County. The organization revealed it had sent the letters in an announcement that it is protesting the performance of bands from Williamsburg Independent and Grant County schools at the grand opening of the Christianity-based exhibit. In its announcement, the organization said it had sought written assurances from both school systems that their staff will not “organize, promote, sponsor or otherwise facilitate trips to the ark park. Students are free to travel to the park, but schools cannot play a role.” (Link to full announcement here.) 

“Just as it is not appropriate for outside third parties to dictate field trip selections to schools and districts, it is also not the statutory or regulatory role of KDE to approve or disapprove specific field trip selections, or to issue blanket approvals/denials of field trip destinations,” the agency said in its electronic newsletter.

But the department also pointed out several issues that school and district leaders must take into consideration for field trips to any location.

“It is important to remind educators that at all times and under all circumstances, field trips should be a direct extension of classroom learning. As a result, all off-site trips should be directly related to the school curriculum and should seek to maximize student learning by enhancing the classroom experience,” KDE said. “In Kentucky, curricular determinations are made by teachers, principals and school-based decision making councils. A field trip destination that may be appropriate and aligned to curriculum for a specific high school course may not be appropriate for an elementary class. Final approval of field trip permissions, travel and expenditures are approved by the local board of education. Districts are encouraged to make sure that field trip approval policies are in place at the school and district levels.”

KDE noted that the Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Association of School Councils provide policy guidance on the matter of school field trips. KSBA’s model policy – which has been adopted by most Kentucky school boards – requires that “school-related trips during the school day must be co-curricular (for a grade) or instructional” in nature for students to be counted as present that day.

The state advisory concluded by urging school and district leaders that “legal threats from outside entities should be discussed with local board counsel as any threatened or actual litigation will turn on the individual facts within your schools.”

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