A pending lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union is having far-reaching effects on school field trips around California, including in Palo Alto.
The 2010 suit -- alleging that the state has insufficiently enforced its "free school guarantee" by allowing districts to charge illegal fees -- has sent Palo Alto school officials back to the law books to make sure they are not illegally imposing mandatory fees for educational trips to destinations both local and abroad.
"We can ask for donations, but it has to be just that," said Yancy Hawkins, fiscal-services manager for the Palo Alto school district.
Traditionally, local parents have been asked to pay a fee for school trips, with "scholarships" available from booster clubs -- or from other parents who pay a little extra -- for families who could not pay.
A shift to strictly voluntary contributions could make it difficult to cover costs for all students in some situations, particularly when no aid is available from booster clubs or others to pay for families who cannot or prefer not to contribute.
Hawkins has made the rounds of Palo Alto campuses, trying to explain the new rules to principals and teachers who organize school trips, from excursions to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to Sacramento to Washington, D.C., to the Netherlands to Costa Rica.
Decisions on whether a trip that's traditionally been under school sponsorship will remain so are up to the teacher or principal, Hawkins said.
At JLS, the middle school will not sponsor a Washington, D.C., trip this year, although the parent board of the school's "Connections" program will sponsor a Washington trip for Connections students, he said.
A Jordan Middle School science trip to Costa Rica will continue to be school-sponsored, as will a Gunn High School Jazz Ensemble trip to the Netherlands, with help from a music boosters group, Hawkins said.
Palo Alto High School journalism trips to Sacramento and New York City will continue to be school-sponsored, he said.
A trip must be school-sponsored and freely available to all if it occurs during normal class time, when students will need excused absences from other classes.
"In terms of changing what we're doing, there hasn't been a huge impact, and a lot of that is because of the generosity of this community," Hawkins said.
"The number of people who are willing to donate money for that kind of thing is high, and the number of people who either can't afford it or don't want to donate money is low."
But other districts, where many families cannot afford the cost, have it tougher.
"Kids weren't being excluded in Palo Alto, whereas in a lot of other districts they were, and I think that's where the lawsuit came in," Hawkins said.
The state constitution guarantees all California students a free public education, and it permits fees only for activities specifically enumerated in the Education Code.
Examples of fees that are permitted are those for voluntary tests such as the SAT, deposits for school band instruments, caps and gowns, extra copies of school records (the first two copies must be free) and entertainment-related costs such as tickets for dances, homecoming and activities not considered educational in nature.