A recommendation worth pursuing came up at the school committee’s November 20 meeting.
Hope Hanscom, assistant superintendent at Mashpee Public Schools, gave a report on the Advanced Placement, or AP, program at the schools.
AP gives students the opportunity to take college-level courses as part of their regular course load.
In addition to taking on more challenging academic work, students also can take year-end AP exams that, depending on their test performance, can earn them course credits at the college that they go on to attend.
The good news is that more Mashpee students are taking more AP exams. In the academic year concluded this spring, students took 254 exams, up from 206 in the prior academic year.
The less-good news is that Mashpee students likely would have taken even more AP exams last year, but that a number of them might have held back because of the fee charged on every exam.
Taking an AP exam costs $94, or $51 for students with financial need who qualify for a reduced rate.
Because many Mashpee students take multiple exams in a single academic year, the costs of those exams can escalate swiftly.
So even though the parent/student handbook says students who take the course are expected to take the exam, some don’t.
Ms. Hanscom wants to change that.
“I would love to have the ability to say to our students who want to take an AP test get to take an AP test,” she told the school committee.
Her recommendation: Tap school choice funds, the money Mashpee receives for out-of-district students attending Mashpee schools, to ensure any Mashpee student who wants to take an AP test can take one.
“We have senior twins, who between them this year are taking seven AP exams—think about the financial burden on the family,” she said.
(By our calculation, $658 at the full rate, or $357 at the financial need rate.)
Ms. Hanscom’s idea to tap school choice funds to help subsidize AP test-taking is, so to speak, right on the money: a relatively low-cost way to help Mashpee students and families.
But the recommendation also carries the additional value of perhaps opening the door to a wider discussion of what Mashpee Public Schools in particular and Massachusetts public schools in general should emphasize.
It’s no secret that public schools in recent decades have been broadening their missions, seeking to better serve formerly underserved populations, such as students with special needs.
Former president George W. Bush summed up the concept in the phrase “No Child Left Behind”—a worthy goal.
But in an American society where different interests are competing for the same shared pool of common money, education funding often turns out to be an essentially zero-sum game.
Educators facing arguably burgeoning needs even as student populations decline must decide how to divvy up the funds that are available. Sometimes their hands are tied by laws, legislators and bureaucrats.
So the funding pendulum swings one way, and then another, with balance proving elusive.
Some would argue that the pendulum now has swung too far in the direction of special education, to the detriment of regular education.
Whereas young people with special needs once were kept sealed away by their families, they now command a growing share of education funding.
In a zero-sum scenario, that money has to come from somewhere.
In the past decade, the relief was palpable one year in a school district neighboring Mashpee when a special-needs student “aged out” of the district.
Had that student remained in the district’s care for another year, the student’s education would have cost $1 million.
The district didn’t have it. To balance the budget, 20 classroom teachers would have had to be laid off.
Public schools need to recognize that life is unfair and to reexamine their basic mission. The money fount is not inexhaustible. Funding faces limits.
Schools need to ensure that the lion’s share of their students graduate with a grasp of knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this first half of the 21st century.
For starters, that would include writing clearly, reading perceptively, being able to engage in real-life mathematical calculations, and carrying a basic knowledge of American and world history and of scientific truths.
For whatever reasons, more and more American students in recent years have been falling down in one or more of those categories.
Schools need to return the focus to academics, pure and simple. And to the extent they can help at least some of their students excel academically—to take on more challenging material, perhaps of a college level, and to possibly gain college credits at a time when those credits often are frightfully expensive—they should do so.