'High degree of anxiety' as Manitoba's education system braces for major reforms
Education minister says he expects review of Manitoba K-12 education to recommend significant changes
Hold a public meeting to weigh in on Manitoba's $17-billion budget, and maybe a few dozen people will show up.
But say that Manitoba may shake up its public school system, and you'll have to squeeze hundreds of people into a packed hall.
People attended public consultations on the province's review of kindergarten to Grade 12 education in droves last spring, in part because they're worried, says University of Manitoba dean of education David Mandzuk.
He thinks they're concerned the upcoming report based on the K-12 review will threaten something they hold dear.
"I think people are bracing themselves for what they anticipate will be some pretty significant changes to how they're doing things right now — and there's a fairly high degree of anxiety about that," he said.
A year after the Manitoba government announced a review of a school system, the independent commission is putting the finishing touches on its report. It will land on the table of the education minister next month, and a public release is slated for March.
Some parents, teachers, school administrators and trustees have had their back up since the review was announced last January, Mandzuk said.
The province says 15,000 people offered their opinions to the K-12 commission in some way.
"Nothing is off the table," Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said last January, as he announced the review.
Goertzen said he needed to be convinced that 290 trustees across 37 school divisions is the right number for Manitoba, while other provinces have far fewer trustees, or none at all.
The province insists it isn't meddling in the review, which is being led by former education minister Clayton Manness and former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon. Avis Glaze — who previously led an education review that resulted in sweeping changes in Nova Scotia — was enlisted as its lead consultant.
But the worry that an austerity-minded government will make cuts to education lingers.
The Progressive Conservative government focused on health-care reform in its first term, converting three Winnipeg emergency rooms into urgent care centres. That's led to many health-care professionals saying they're now overworked at understaffed hospitals.
In the lead-up to last fall's provincial election, the Progressive Conservatives said they would take away a major responsibility of school boards, promising to phase out education property taxes once the province's budget is balanced.
Manitobans "may fear that some of the services that they [have] become accustomed to … will be lost in the name of administrative efficiency," the U of M's Mandzuk said, especially if the province moves to force school divisions to amalgamate, as a Manitoba NDP government did in 2002.
"If those divisions amalgamate, there'll be some loss of institutional culture," added Mandzuk, who expects some type of amalgamation to be recommended.
"There is the fear of sort of a loss of identity, loss of identity as a community … and even a change of identity for those within the new culture."
The president of the Manitoba School Boards Association says trustees offer a local perspective that would be lost if decisions are made solely in the Manitoba Legislature.
But he says he's holding out hope that the commission didn't begin its review with foregone conclusions about amalgamating or cutting boards.
"Its difficult to do my job in terms of advocacy if I just choose to believe that it's all a big lie," said Alan Campbell.
"You can call me a cockeyed optimist if you want, but I like to think that I can be a cautious optimist and be a realist all at the same time."
Laura Reimer, a former school trustee and an author on education issues, says trustees should be demanding important resources and meaningful changes, but too often they aren't in Manitoba.
"Where we tend to see school trustees going against government tends to be on political or ideological matters. We don't hear them saying things like, 'We cannot train our kids on technology because we don't have the money for it from you' or they don't say, 'We cannot possibly raise taxes in this community after this crisis."
Without that pressure, she argues school administrators do a better job connecting and advocating for their communities.
"Those are the people who are actually developing the budgets … so they are not going to make decisions that are going to actively harm the learning experience of a vulnerable population."
While Nova Scotia and Quebec have both recently moved to eliminate their school boards, Prince Edward Island decided last month to reinstate its elected boards, rather than relying on appointed bodies.
Critics insist Manitoba's 2002 amalgamation, which cut the number of boards from 54 to 37, didn't work. They cite a 2005 analysis from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, that concluded the province's costs rose, partly because wages needed to be harmonized across the remaining school divisions.
Significant changes expected: Goertzen
It's natural for people in education to worry for their jobs, the province's education minister said, but that shouldn't influence the commissionaires conducting the review.
"I think that we all have a responsibility, for those of us who are involved in some way within the education system, to be worried about the outcomes for students and less worried about the outcomes for ourselves," Goertzen said in an interview last week.
He expects the commission to recommend significant changes to the public school system, which he argues is necessary since there hasn't been a review of this nature in about 40 years.
"When you review a system as big as education that hasn't been reviewed systematically for decades, I'd be surprised if there weren't changes," Goertzen said.
The government is embarking on this review in large part because of concerns around test scores — Manitoba students have scored near the bottom against their Canadian peers in math, science and literacy.
Stakeholders like the Manitoba Teachers' Society say poverty rates are detrimentally affecting those results.
Goertzen said he isn't turning a blind eye to concerns over socio-economic problems, but maintains curriculum should be examined first.
"If poverty is the sole determinant for the outcomes of education, then why were we doing so much better 20 years ago when poverty rates, arguably, were worse?" he asked.
A request to interview a member of the education review commission was not returned.
With files from Bartley Kives