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Province Proposes to Restructure Education: Locals React

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Cara Dowse

On March 15, the provincial government released its proposed new strategy for Kindergarten to Grade 12 education, under the Education Modernization Act, also known as Bill 64. The province has said that the changes will remove top-heavy administration in order to shift $40 million in funding and resources to the classroom while giving parents and guardians more input.

However, many parents, teachers, and administrators see problems with Bill 64 and say it will cause more harm than good. The changes outlined in the extensive 327-page document have been called bracing, a nightmare, and have already sparked protests in front of Premier Brian Pallister’s home.

So what is Bill 64? It’s important to know that it changes the way the education system is governed and delivered under the law in Manitoba. It introduces a new act, and through it several other acts are amended or repealed. The bill is in its second reading at the Manitoba Legislature, awaiting its public hearing, and amendments may still happen before it’s passed into law.

What Will Bill 64 Do?

Bill 64 is basically a reimagining of the Kindergarten to Grade 12 education structure from the ground up. The proposed changes will have a large impact on parent volunteer involvement due to the removal of elected trustee boards, as well as on administrative roles and offices due to the removal of school divisions.

As far as timeline goes, the government intends for the new model to be in place by July 1, 2022, meaning that the bulk of the work needed to combine school divisions into their new regions will need to be done prior to or immediately following that date. And parents and teachers would largely notice changes in place not for the upcoming school year, but the one starting in September 2022.

It’s important to realize that the changes written about here aren’t exhaustive, and more information can be found at the websites listed at the end of this article.

School divisions replaced by regions. The province is currently divided into catchment areas to facilitate administering the public education system by geographic area, but the Education Modernization Act would combine Manitoba’s 37 school divisions and replace them with one provincial education authority with only 15 regions.

The only school division to remain unaffected would be the DSFM (division scolaire franco-manitobaine), which is the provider of French-language instruction in Manitoba.

The new regions would consolidate much of the existing administration staff in the former divisions, cutting down on superintendent roles, human resources, accounting, and other support positions.

In our area, both Hanover and Seine River would remain intact as educational regions.

A new governance model. Among the most sweeping changes introduced in Bill 64 is the creation of a new Education Act, which establishes a new governance and delivery model for elementary and high school education. This replaces the Public Schools Act, the Education Administration Act, and the Community Schools Act.

The government agency created under this new act will be called the Provincial Education Authority. Under the Minister of Education, the Provincial Education Authority will be run by an appointed (not elected) board of between six and 11 people, a minority of which (but at least two) must be parents of current public school students and who serve on the provincial advisory council (more on that in a moment).

New provincial education authority board. Under the Education Minister, the authority board will determine regional catchment areas, curriculum and policies, arrangements for early learning programs and other specialty instruction, and student expulsions. This board will be responsible for reporting annually on the assessment results of education programs and student learning outcomes. The authority board will also appoint a Director of Education for each region.

New directors of education. The directors of education would work with the school community councils in each region.

Volunteer school community councils. These councils will replace elected trustees boards. The way that parents make their voices heard currently is through electing trustees, but under the new system trustees will be eliminated and parents wishing to get involved will need to volunteer their time to form a community council for each school.

Every parent of a student will by default be a member of the school’s community council and will help elect executives to run the council. The school community council will review and recommend ways in which the school can meet the needs of the community it serves, including recommending hiring of teachers and staff, undertaking capital construction projects, and assessing program effectiveness.

One parent representative from each region will be appointed as the parental engagement officer and act as a representative of the region on the provincial advisory council, which will form a board to advise the Provincial Education Authority.

The DSFM will retain its elected board of trustees and one trustee will be appointed to the provincial advisory council.

Principals, vice-principals, and teachers. Each school will still have a principal, who must be a certified teacher. The principal will be the educational leader and manage the school and supervise the staff, including teachers. The Provincial Education Authority will appoint the principal and serve as the employer of all public school teachers in Manitoba (apart from teachers employed by the DSFM).

Principals and vice-principals will be removed from the teachers union, the Manitoba Teachers Society.

Funding through levy, not property tax. Bill 64 introduces legislation that accomplishes a goal of the Progressive Conservative party’s platform: phasing out the education tax component of property bills.

Currently, property taxes makes up 42 percent of all education funding, but the model results in considerable funding fluctuations for school divisions, since some have much wealthier, revenue-generating properties in their catchment than others.

Instead of depending on property tax, Bill 64 would give power to the Provincial Education Authority to “determine the amount to be raised by special levy after it is informed by the minister of the amount of support that will be provided for the year.” It will then be up to the local municipalities to collect the funds through a special levy.

Changes to homeschooling. A parent may choose a home school arrangement, but Bill 64 would legally limit instruction “only to family members at the home.”

Why Are the Changes Necessary?

The provincial government says that these changes are based on recommendations from the 2019 Commission on K-12 Education and its resulting report, released in March 2020. The report made 75 recommendations covering a wide range of topics from school governance to curriculum to inclusivity.

The COVID-19 pandemic also had a dramatic impact on how our education system responded to the needs of students and families in the past year. The government says the lack of consistency across school divisions clarified the need for change.

Aside from recent reports and events, Manitoba has struggled with many issues facing its education system. The province says that Bill 64 is designed to target many of the largest of these issues.

Curriculum and resource inconsistency. The province lays the blame for systemic inconsistency on the various school divisions. For a long time, Manitoba has had the highest number of school divisions and trustees per capita in all of Canada, resulting in vastly different standards and resources for parents and students across the province depending on where they live.

Poor student outcomes. Manitoba also has one of the highest administrative costs in all of Canada, and the province directly connects the high cost of administration with student test results and graduation levels, which rank among the lowest in Canada. In particular, Indigenous students have a much lower graduation rate compared to non-Indigenous students.

Uneven funding. As mentioned earlier, Manitoba’s system of funding education through property taxes results in inequalities between school divisions. This is in part because of uneven population distribution. For example, rural areas have fewer people with, typically, less expensive properties to tax.

Also, areas with high-value commercial properties pay higher amounts of property tax. School divisions even within the same city receive vastly different funds through the current model.

Desired Outcomes

The Progressive Conservative government says that these changes will make education more consistent province-wide, effectively engage parents, and put students first. They point to the financial benefits of removing trustee boards, reducing administration costs by combining school divisions, and revising the funding model by decoupling education taxes and property taxes.

The savings, according to the government, will be up to $40 million per year, funds which will stay in the education system.

The ambitious strategy is intended to produce measurable improvements for student outcomes, such as test results and graduation rates. The goal is for school community councils and the provincial advisory council to better assess the effectiveness of school programs and analyze student achievement and learning outcomes. These councils will also have a say in determining how and by when those outcomes are to be improved.

The added emphasis on volunteer councils is intended to give parents more say in the education of their children.

However, the reaction to the Education Modernization Act has been swift since its introduction last month. Members of the general public and educators across the province have spoken loudly about their many and varied concerns.

In general, support for the proposal has been thin. From parents, school administrators, and the teachers union, concern ranges from “not liking change” to thorough and exhaustive critiques of the ideological foundations of Bill 64 and its likelihood to effect positive change.

Parental Perspective

Many parents have picked up on the idea that removing school trustee boards removes an established body of elected officials who are supposed to represent them. Although the new system would deliver to parents a new level of responsibility with community councils, those councils wouldn’t necessarily have the power to effect change.

A number of parents who agreed to the speak to The Citizen say they would prefer not to see trustee boards eliminated.

“Yes, not all elected officials are passionate about their job or do it well,” says one parent. “But trustees are here for us and represent our needs and what is best for our kids. They have experience in education and a bunch of issues that, in general, the average parent just doesn’t have. And now we will be asked to do their jobs, but as volunteers.”

Critics of the school community council model point out that most parents don’t have the time or energy to do what trustees do, and the ones who do are going to be disproportionately scarce in areas with higher concentrations of lower-income families, single-parent families, and immigrants. Parents in these demographics typically work more or longer hours and immigrant families often face a language barrier to community involvement.

They say that the new school community councils will create undue burden on busy parents and new inconsistencies across regions.

Parents we spoke to raised other reasons for why student test scores in Manitoba are low compared to the rest of Canada—and those reasons, they say, are socioeconomic.

Some parents point out that schools have been asking for more teachers, lower class sizes, and more in-class support for years. So if the $40 million saved through this proposal were to be reallocated to provide more frontline support for children, that would be a good thing. These parents want more money to be funnelled toward school resources that directly help kids, such as more teachers, in-class support for special needs students, school psychologists, and addictions and mental health supports.

HSD Reacts

The Hanover School Division recently released a letter to parents from superintendent Shelley Amos.

“Given the scope of the report and proposed changes, it will take time to review and understand the implications for Hanover School Division,” Amos wrote. “We look forward to participating in the provincial consultation process and learning more details in the months ahead. HSD will continue to work and communicate with our stakeholders while focusing on creating student success in each of our schools.”

Ron Falk, chair of the HSD board of trustees, says that the Progressive Conservative government is making a power move that actually limits the strength of local parents to have a say in their children’s education.

“For all of Hanover, you’ll have one person on an advisory board that makes a recommendation to the provincial authority. Somehow that’s supposed to mean there’s more of a voice,” says Falk. “Removing trustees removes the local voice and local accountability. They’re saying that parents will have greater voice in their schools, but we were elected by them and we already have parent councils and we listen to them. We know we have needs in our school divisions and the province hasn’t listened to the trustees about them. Why would people think the government is going to listen to a parent-led council differently?”

Falk says there are school divisions that are doing a fantastic job engaging parents, with active parent councils, and no good argument could be made that parents will be better served through volunteer-led school community councils.

“As it is in Hanover, which I can speak to, we have fantastic parents,” he says. “Parents are engaged, certainly, in the schools. The government wants parents to have a say and be listened to, which is exactly what we are doing right now.”

Unfortunately, trustees acting as parent advocates doesn’t mean they have been successful in securing more resources for the help needed in schools. Falk acknowledges the difficult situations of high-needs family, saying that in the last five years he’s seen school divisions specifically ask for more resource help, more mental health supports, and more psychologists. He says, in his experience, the amount of specialized help needed by children would not be able to be met by hiring professionals even with the cost-saving measures of eliminating trustee boards and administration support positions. Instead the province is directing cuts at the education system when the focus on helping children and families should come from an entirely different department for social helps.

“We have to realize, in Manitoba, that our communities are not as stable as they used to be,” Falk says. “There are a lot of high-needs families, for many various reasons, and families going through a lot of high-stress situations in the families. From Grades Three and Four, we have kids who have anxiety and stress and high needs. So eliminating some of these admins and using those resources to put in place the professionals we need? Let me tell you—there aren’t enough resources to fill the needs. Yes, the schools must continue to provide a learning environment even while faced with such a wide variety of needs. And our educators do this. But the education must be the priority.”

Falk says that government officials are being too vague and it just isn’t possible to show how Bill 64 will save the government $40 million.

“They’ve been saying that they’re going to save $40 million by eliminating school boards, trustees, superintendents, and the like,” he adds. “Cutting the cost of trustee positions and running the boards, that will cost $4–5 million. So where is the other $35 million savings coming from? Eliminating school superintendents and admin positions doesn’t add up to $40 million.”

He also points out that some of the savings will be a one-time burst of funding during the first year when the removal of trustee boards and administrative positions is first enacted, but that many smaller school divisions are already struggling to maintain administrative support for schools on an already-reduced staff.

“Removing trustees, yes, this means cutting down on people delays, communication delays. And the perceived ‘middle management’ is seen as unnecessary; people cost time and money. But the government has installed administration caps for the past few years. If you’re a smaller school division, there’s no longer room to get rid of positions. They keep saying administration costs are too high, but we’ve already done what they have said each time they’ve mandated we need to lower admin. Some of these divisions are already really, really struggling with their admin and resource positions being so low.”

He also spoke to the issue of socioeconomic factors that influence both comprehensive test scores and graduation levels.

“At first glance, yes, Manitoba is on the lower side of Canada, but we do need to remember that Canada is in the top handful of countries in the world,” Falk points out. “So why is Manitoba doing worse than other provinces? There are a number of reasons. The reason Manitoba’s stats may be a little lower is that our socioeconomic standing is lower than other provinces. Our regions to the north do not have the resources and supports and our poverty issues are more significant than our neighbouring provinces even. It’s also important to know that with testing of students at a certain grade level, not all of the students are tested. Different provinces select specific geographical areas to conduct their tests. If Manitoba would do that, our scores would be better. When you factor in those reasons, it explains our test scores.”

Falk explained that while Hanover receives an unfairly low amount of funding compared to the number of children in its schools, there is already a measure used by the government to address that inequality, one that offers additional funding to low-assessment divisions. It’s called Additional Equalization.

“In Hanover, we like to think we have a pretty great place to live,” he says. “But if you look at the number of children we have, we are actually only on the receiving end of a comparatively small commercial base of property taxes, making us the eighth or ninth in the province for funding. This means the amount of tax revenue we can glean is not as high per child. And further still to regions in the north, they won’t have as much tax base to pull from in any way. There just isn’t that assessment base to pull from. That’s what the government is saying they are trying to address. But there is already a standard in place, called Equalization, to try to balance the discrepancy.”

As to inconsistencies in the province-wide curriculum, Falk points out that curriculum comes from the Department of Education, so while there may be discrepancies in the implementation of the curriculum, there are no differences in the subject material itself.

Educators Weigh In

Multiple past and present school administrators were consulted for this article, but none were willing to go on the record with their comments, fearing repercussions. The general assessment of Bill 64 among the experienced educators we spoke to was universally negative. However, some did acknowledge that it may be too soon to tell the full impact of the proposed changes.

Many educators are concerned over the legislation’s focus on budget-balancing and the virtues of smaller government with greater concentrations of power, ideological preferences of the Progressive Conservatives. They worry these ideologies could be prioritized over the true needs of Manitoba children.

The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations (MOFA) includes the faculty associations of Brandon University, Université de Saint-Boniface, the University of Manitoba, and the University of Winnipeg. The organization, representing approximately 1,600 Manitoba educators, is concerned that some of Bill 64’s wording appears to be plagiarized from an American right-wing lobby group.

“Both the language and intent of bills submitted by this government borrow heavily from American open source legislation prepared by a corporate lobby group: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),” reads a statement on the MOFA website. “Academics are trained to spot plagiarism, and here the spotting was easy. MOFA sees this legislative plagiarism as another step toward remodelling Manitoba after Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi… MOFA strongly believes that the elimination of our school boards is fundamentally undemocratic and reduces crucial democratic input from both parents and Manitobans at large.”

One teacher from the Hanover area did offer a comment on the condition of anonymity. This teacher believes the community will have less say in education overall and it will be even more difficult for schools to have their needs met.

“This is an extremely top-heavy plan, as in government control,” they say. “Initially when I heard rumours about getting rid of the school boards, I wasn’t too concerned. But this plan is essentially cutting out elected and informed officials and replacing it with voluntary committees that are predicted to have no power. I don’t feel good about this bill and through conversations with my colleagues I don’t think any teachers are feeling good about it.”

This teacher acknowledges that the trustee system isn’t perfect, but they believe a parent-led voluntary committee will not be as well informed about education matters, nor be able to effectively represent the needs of the entire community.

“Yes, kids with stable homes and parents available to advocate for them will be well represented,” they say. “Kids that need a voice—minorities, kids in care, and at-risk youth—will not be represented and will disappear even further into the background.”

From a teacher’s perspective, this educator feels that principals being removed from the teachers union is going to create new barriers between teachers and principals, creating a workplace environment more typical of a corporation than an education system. They say the move will weaken the collective bargaining strength inherent in the union, which is a known goal of the Progressive Conservative government.

“This bill gives the government a lot of control. It reminds me of how you would set up a mega corporation. Top heavy,” says the Hanover area teacher. “This government has a history of treating educators poorly by illegally freezing our wages, delaying contract bargaining, and increasing class sizes. Ever year they pat themselves on the back because of all the money they give to education, not mentioning the fact that it doesn’t even keep up to the rate of inflation. Over and over again they throw us under the bus and it makes educators very uneasy about giving them even more control. Our system is not perfect, but changes need to be innovative, with teachers and students in mind.”

They also see Bill 64’s changes, with its focus on outcomes, as part of the right-wing ideology commonly found in the United States and American Republicanism. It focuses on budget and test scores as measurements intended to project people’s economic potential, but it doesn’t take into consideration basic needs and quality of life.

“The [Conservatives] see testing as a way of holding the system accountable,” says the teacher. “This is very common in the States where standardized testing is rampant. They use the testing to judge teachers and schools on their effectiveness. Standardized tests show you a very small part of a very big picture. As MTS [Manitoba Teachers Society] has stated many times, the child poverty rate, and children in care in our province, is out of control. How can we expect kids to excel in math and reading when they don’t have their basic needs met? Kids show up in your classroom as they are, and you do what you can while you have them there.”

Even though they’re not yet sure how these changes will affect the day-to-day duties of teaching, they are bracing for changes while keeping their focus on how to help kids learn to the best of their ability.

“I think as a teacher I just have to keep coming back to the reason I do this job. I really care about the kids, and I really believe in teaching the whole child. No matter what happens, I’ll just have to keep coming back to that.”

What Happens Next?

Bill 64 is now awaiting hearings where the public will be invited to speak either in favour or against its provisions.

If parents, educators, or members of the public are at all concerned, Ron Falk suggests that they talk to their local MLAs and consider registering to speak at the hearings, which will be held virtually.

“Parents should be concerned,” says Falk. “They are being promised a bunch of stuff that is still vague, not based on a foundation that points to the actions they are proposing, and that will not come to fruition as the government is projecting. These are sweeping changes that will not be easily undone.”

To further his point, Falk brings up a recent encounter with a member of the community who was worried about what was going on.

“I had a grandmother phone me last night,” he says. “She was very concerned and, even though she’s not involved in the school system right now, she says she sees what’s going on and knows it’s terrible. She says, ‘How can we be heard?’ I said, ‘Even grandmothers can be heard.’ You need to email your MLA and email your premier. You have a premier who is very autocratic, between the premier and the former Minister of Education, this deal was done and people need to be aware of that. So send an email to your MLA. That doesn’t take much, but it’s something. You can also register to speak at the public hearings via Zoom, so it will be actually less intimidating than going in person and being in front of a room full of dignitaries.”

The Manitoba School Board Association (MSBA) has also been working to raise awareness of the risks of removing local democratic accountability from public education. The MSBA has launched a website called www.localvoices.ca where Manitobans can learn how to engage directly with their MLAs and with the legislative committee on Bill 64.

“With the announcement, our advocacy doesn’t stop,” says MSBA President Alan Campbell. “The awareness of Manitobans has clearly been heightened given the immediate outpouring of frustration and anger that we’ve seen… It’s time for MLAs and Minister [of Education] Cullen to hear from Manitobans about his plans to cut their voice out of public education.”

In the Hanover and Seine River School Divisions, life will continue to run as per normal until Bill 64 officially passes and committees are struck to implement the transition to the new governance model. Each school division will release information to parents as the next action steps are made official.

“We have told our staff in Hanover that for the next year and a half things will run as per normal,” says Falk. “We have to continue to educate students and do the work we are called to do. Education is important and between now and then, we need to keep moving.”

For more information

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Citizen Poll

Are you in favour of the proposed restructuring of education in Manitoba, as laid out in Bill 64?

For related article, see link below.
https://nivervillecitizen.com/...