What’s Happening at the Statehouse: Education Legislation
Posted: March 13, 2020|
POST UPDATED 3/17/2020: The Rhode Island General Assembly has cancelled all legislative sessions and hearings until further notice to curb the spread of COVID-19. For more information, click here.
Only two months into the session, the ACLU of Rhode Island has already testified and provided commentary on dozens of bills. And, as in past years, one of the major topics of legislation is the public education system in Rhode Island. Every session, hundreds of bills are introduced to reform or adjust the manner in which our schools function.
The ACLU has a vested interest in the success of good education legislation. Bills that protect student privacy, confront harmful disciplinary protocols and the school-to-prison pipeline, and reaffirm the rights of students while they are in school are critical to the comprehensive protection of civil liberties. Over the past two months, here are some of the important pieces of school and student related legislation that we have commented on:
Mental Health Personnel Funding (H 7171, Article 10)
Article 10 of the proposed FY 2021 budget would extend the current reimbursement funding available for the hiring of school resource officers (SROs) to the hiring of mental health professionals by public schools. We have consistently opposed statutorily created financial incentives for the hiring of SROs over other, more critically needed personnel, and supported this budget Article because it would prioritize behavioral and mental support over more punitive disciplinary measures.
School Discipline Reform (H 7439)
Despite the passage of important legislation in 2016 which was intended to address the overzealous use of out-of-school suspensions in Rhode Island schools, the disciplinary data for many school districts continues to display alarming disparities for both students of color and students with disabilities, and shocking rates of suspension for the youngest students in grades K-5. In addition, not a single school district has submitted a statutorily required report to the Rhode Island Department of Education addressing any efforts to mitigate such disparities. We supported a critical piece of legislation, H 7439, introduced by Representative Grace Diaz, which would largely eliminate the ability for a K-5 student to be given an out-of-school suspension and would also strengthen the current reporting requirements for school districts.
Over-the-Counter Medication in Schools (H 7509, S 2401)
Introduced by Representative Susan Donovan and Senator Ana Quezada, H 7506 and S 2401 would allow high school students to bring over-the-counter medications for self-administration on school property. Current regulations require school authorization; in supporting the legislation, we argued that older teens shouldn’t need permission from a school nurse to bring Tums or Midol to school.
School Computer Privacy (H 7509)
In recent years, the distribution of computers to students in RI public schools for home use has become extremely commonplace, if not ubiquitous, across districts. Unfortunately, as a study we conducted from two years ago showed, students have virtually no privacy protections on these computers, with some policies even allowing remote spying on students. H 7509, introduced by Rep. June Speakman, would implement comprehensive privacy requirements for such computers. The bill would allow school officials to search devices only if they have reasonable suspicion to believe that the student has engaged in misconduct on the computer, and would prohibit remote access except in very limited circumstances. We strongly supported this legislation.
Funding for Field Trips (H 7069 Sub A, S 2327 Sub A)
When a decision from the former-Commissioner of Education, supported by the ACLU, came out last April and affirmed guidelines for equity in the administration of public school field trips, it provoked considerable and extensive confusion and public attention. Even before this year’s legislative session began, it seemed inevitable that legislation to address this topic would swiftly move through the General Assembly.
As predicted, two pieces of legislation quickly introduced in the House of Representatives attempted to address the former-Commissioner’s decision by statutorily allowing for parental contributions towards the funding of field trips. However, what the former-Commissioner’s decision appropriately noted is that in order to ensure accessibility and equity for all students regarding these formative educational experiences, no student or parent could be required to provide payment for these trips or be forced into the stigmatizing position of asking for a fee waiver for financial reasons. We offered several amendments to these two pieces of legislation, H 7043 and H 7069, to ensure the essence of the Commissioner’s ruling remains intact. The House amended their legislation to reflect our concerns, and we supported the amended version which passed on the House floor.
The Senate additionally introduced legislation concerning field trips which we supported; we did, however, urge amendments to clarify the strictly voluntary nature of any requested donations. This legislation was amended in the House to mirror the content of H 7069. In light of the disruption being caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, however, the purported urgency of these bills may have declined.
Although this is far from a complete list of education-related legislation that we have testified on, these bills demonstrate how prevalent educational policy is on the General Assembly’s agenda – and ours. For more information about how you can advocate for these bills (and more!), visit our Advocacy 101 page.