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We're spending less money on more schools in Michigan. That's why we're near the bottom.

Danny Nicholson
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Now that the teachers and students are back in school, I can’t resist turning my attention to school sports, one of my favorite subjects.

I am a proud 1982 graduate of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. I can still remember the name of every teacher I ever had. Almost all were very good, and I had more truly exceptional teachers than anyone has a right to expect. I’m still in touch with many of them.

This wasn’t just my experience, either. Perhaps that explains why, when I graduated, public school students from state of Michigan ranked among the best nationwide, despite our struggling economy.

... since my day, things have changed rather dramatically, and I can't say for the better.

Our experience wasn’t just defined by classes, either.

More than half my classmates played school sports. For me, that included baseball, cross-country, soccer, and a lot of hockey. I felt so strongly about my experiences, and the coaches who made them possible, that I returned to coach junior high school baseball and high school hockey – for the same peanuts my mentors were paid.

I loved it, just like they did.

But since my day, things have changed rather dramatically, and I can’t say for the better.

In the past decade, state legislators have reduced their investment in traditional public schools by 25%, while school enrollment has dropped by 200,000 students.

But at the same time, they’ve added more than 300 charter schools – some are great, more are terrible, but none are monitored very well -- and also allowed for-profit, cyber schools to take millions of our tax dollars, and those don’t seem to work at all.

That’s right: we’re funding more schools than ever before, with much less money and fewer students.

You don’t have to be an AP calculus student to know that doesn’t add up.

So what gets the squeeze? The same public schools most of us attended.

This imbalance gets us smaller staffs, bigger class sizes, and less money for choir, band, theater and sports – one of the great strengths of America’s public school system. We have these after school activities because of the uniquely American belief that they can teach you things the classroom cannot, things like teamwork, competition, and compromise.

But thanks to endless budget cuts, my old high school, like so many of them, has had to cut bus service to most games. Teams have to pay for their own uniforms, basic equipment, ice time, greens fees, and bowling lanes, and they still have to charge students $250 a year to play sports. This actually represents a pretty heroic effort to keep these opportunities open for all the students who want to play, but it’s not been easy for anyone.

In my day, we didn’t have charter schools, schools of choice, or cyber schools, and not many went to private schools.

"There's too much pluribus, and not enough unum."

No, back then, we just got on a bus, and when the bus stopped, you got off, and that was your school. Once we entered that school, we had to work with all kinds of people, people we might not have met anywhere else.

And that’s how you learn to play well with others. Reflecting on our national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (“From many, one”), Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said, “There’s too much pluribus, and not enough unum.”

Put me down for more unum. 

And here’s the final kicker: Not only is our current patchwork approach to education creating more schools for fewer students, it isn’t working. In the past three decades, we have dropped like a stone, from the nation’s top tier to the bottom tier. We are now battling Alabama.

I’m sure people will respond to this with their political positions, because these days, everything gets politicized. But I’m not making a political statement here. When it comes to education, my politics are simple: I am for whatever works - and this isn’t working.

So, why are we still doing it?

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.