Right in the center – The education system still facing changes

Right in the center – The education system still facing changes

By Ken Waddell

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A a lot can happen in a year. Last March, I wrote in this space that the Province of Manitoba had received and released a report on K-12 education with 75 recommendations. Then-Education Minister Cliff Cullen said the province had accepted them all in spirit and principle. I noted that some, but not all, made it into Bill 64.

Bill 64 went through the legislature and received a ton of backlash. Last March, I said, “The K-12 report and Bill 64 are long overdue. Whether the 75 recommendations are the right ones remains to be seen. Rather than saying that every detail is the right direction or whether all this planning will work or not, it’s important to look into the complaints. Minister Cullen said they had to do something and he is right. With administrative costs appearing high relative to other provinces and educational outcomes appearing low relative to other provinces, the need for action is clear. That said, many of the premises of Bill 64 are long overdue.

Bill 64 was withdrawn almost immediately after the resignation of then Prime Minister Brian Pallister. MPs faced a tidal wave of opposition to Bill 64 and they abandoned it. However, the problems he identified have not gone away.

Further investigation at the time showed that, yes, administration costs were quite high, but not in all school divisions. The Neepawa-based Beautiful Plains School Division has fairly low administration costs compared to some divisions.

Supporting education with property taxes is totally outdated. This change should have happened about 40 years ago, maybe longer than that. Introduced at the turn of the last century, it was assumed that school land taxes were the way to go. Almost every quarter section of land had a family with children living there, it was assumed that most homes and businesses had children living on the property. This being largely the case, it made some sense to tax land to fund education. Over the decades, the province has taken on some of the funding, as it should. Education serves everyone, not just owners. Education is a service rendered to people and should therefore be financed by all. Property taxes should be earmarked for services to the land, such as roads, water, sewer, and many other land service needs. If the government can shift funding for education from property to general revenue, that will be a good thing. Property owners can then invest their tax dollars in improving or, in some cases, even simply maintaining their property. Farmers and commercial property owners have been unfairly burdened with school taxes and this must stop. It is part of the changes that have been expected for 40 years.

We must not forget that the last major change to the education system dates back to 1966, which, by the way, goes back 55 years. It was then that school divisions were expanded and large-scale school transportation began.

School boards and school commissioners are almost all mad about Bill 64, and that’s understandable. Also understandable is the government’s statement that school boards have spent most of their time wrangling over local tax rates and negotiating with teachers over salaries. Bill 64 purports to place teacher salary bargaining under provincial authority. It may make sense.

It will sound harsh, but newspapers essentially stopped covering school board meetings years ago. During the two nights a month it took to cover school board meetings, it seemed like there was a lot of approval going on. The hands of the board members were tied by the province and since a lot of the funding came from the province, is that any surprise? In recent years, it has been difficult to convince people to run for school boards.

The third thing that jumps out at you is school results. Manitoba is reported to be low on the Canadian charts by many measures. The numbers seem to show it. Defenders of the current education system claim that these results are due to poverty. Maybe, and is it likely, to some extent. However, if poverty was the criterion of failure, that did not hold back my older brother, who served in the Royal Canadian Navy for 15 years and had a long career in business and transportation. That didn’t stop my second brother from earning two college degrees and serving many decades in the agriculture industry. That didn’t stop me from getting a college degree and a reasonably successful career in business, politics, and journalism. Poverty can sometimes be an incentive to succeed even more than being born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

The teachers’ union will be upset because that’s what they get paid for. School trustees will be upset because their role is being reallocated. The support workers’ union will be upset, but I don’t know why, because they’ll all probably have jobs and there may be more jobs in teaching and support services as the money is transferred.

I think everyone’s big concern is that governments of all political stripes have a huge propensity to screw things up. It’s our job as journalists, and as citizens, to make sure they don’t. If we are not up to this task, we will all be in big trouble.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are the personal opinions of the author and should not be considered the opinions of Banner & Press staff.