Beware of two-tiered system in sweeping K-12 reforms, Manitoba educator says

The province's proposed education reforms in Bill 64 leave Manitoba on the precipice of possibly eroding our public education system and we need to take extreme caution, writes Seven Oaks School Division assistant superintendent Matt Henderson.

Modelling public schools on private education 'a dangerous path' that could erode system: Matt Henderson

With its proposed education reforms, Manitoba's government appears to be trying to create 'a public system modelled on an independent system,' writes Matt Henderson. 'This is a dangerous path that leads to the erosion of the public system and the development of a private system for the elite.' (Darin Morash/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Matt Henderson, an assistant superintendent with Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I am grateful that Manitoba's minister of education is taking time to pause and think about the overwhelming resistance to the controversial and unpopular Bill 64.

As a province, we are on the precipice of possibly eroding our public education system and we need to take extreme caution. 

Recently, Minister Cliff Cullen hinted that he will be considering amendments to The Education Modernization Act.

His predecessor, Kelvin Goertzen, argued at a May 2020 conference that "education isn't simply a state activity — maybe shouldn't even be primarily a state activity.… I am a big believer in choice when it comes to education."

U.S Sen. Ted Cruz was in the same meeting and was part of the same panel.

In his presentation in April 2020 to a Global Home Education Exchange panel, Goertzen also proudly announced that he was "a strong advocate, our government is a strong advocate, for the rights of home-schoolers, independent schools — really just the right of parent involvement and control over education."

It is clear that his intent is to model our public system on the private system. Goertzen's comments reveal an attachment to a global movement that is fearful of inclusive and secular education that disrupts the status quo.

Minister Cullen has yet to take any action that differs from the government's agenda.

This movement uses terms meant to appeal to all, describing "modernization" goals through the creation of parent "choice." At its core, the movement seeks to transform public education through free-market forces where the affluent access certain schools, while the public system is left in shambles. This has been the model in other countries.

Bill 64 and the province's BEST, or the Better Education Starts Today implementation process, appear to mirror the independent schools system.

Modelled on independent school system

Bill 64 seeks to create 13 education authorities in Manitoba's regional communities, reserving only two authorities for Winnipeg's diverse urban communities and the north.

The bill seeks to create parent councils with direct control over budgets, personnel and curriculum, regressive methods of assessment, community-specific curricula that allow communities to bypass so-called "sensitive" content, and the power of principals to hire and fire teachers with ease.

The government is hoping that a public system modelled on an independent system will produce better results and greater value for consumers. There is a strong desire to promote the independent school system as a means for the marketization of education.

This is a dangerous path that leads to the erosion of the public system and the development of a private system for the elite.

We saw a glimpse of this intent with the overrepresentation of independent school delegates on the BEST student advisory committee and through Goertzen's comments suggesting that home-school organizations should lobby governments for greater support. 

'A two-tiered education system will only aggravate the divide between rich and poor,' says Henderson. (Gundam_Ai/Shutterstock)

The creators of this bill argue that appointed, not elected, governance will create better outcomes for learners and create greater economic value, and a more responsive and accountable system. All of these characteristics reflect independent school design, a design that most commonly does not reflect the needs of all learners, communities and democratic societies. 

Small regions like Hanover, with roughly 8,500 learners, will be able to operate as independent systems, while regions like Winnipeg with over 100,000 learners will struggle to respond to the unique needs of specific communities and families.

Independent schools are not necessarily designed to serve everyone, and they can indeed be exclusionary in nature. The independent system is designed to allow small communities to conserve values and their distinct ways of life. While religious and cultural schools have their place in a robust public system, exclusionary values must not become the norm in a strong public system.

A strong public system

We have seen throughout the world what happens when we create schools for those with advantages and those who are disadvantaged. Think the United States or Brazil — where two-tiered systems of education have dramatically eroded democracy.

And our public schools are excellent. If we look at the most recent Rhodes scholarship recipients from the University of  Manitoba, most are from public schools. 

The simple evidence of Rhodes scholars speaks to the fact that kids do really well in the public system — particularly and predictably those who live in affluent neighbourhoods. Whether learners are coming from the public or independent system, it is no great secret that those who are not plagued by poverty do well.

In Manitoba, when controlled for poverty, our kids do well on international tests. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, which designs the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment, suggests as much. 

More kids enter post-secondary schools now than ever before in Manitoba's history. More Indigenous learners are graduating and entering post-secondary than ever before in Manitoba's history. More learners are included in public education now than ever before. Our collective values have determined these results.

The University of Manitoba graduated over 500 Indigenous learners this year — the largest class in history. This is because of a strong public school system that, despite its warts, includes everyone.

Dozens of people are pictured on the steps of the Manitoba Legislative Building during a July 17 rally. Many wore either a red shirt to protest the province's Bill 64 or an orange one in memory of students who died at residential schools. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

A two-tiered education system will only aggravate the divide between rich and poor. If regions and schools are modelled in the independent system, how will learners learn to become empathetic about the plight of others? 

The recent discoveries at former residential schools point to a need to engage learners with diverse perspectives, peers, and histories. If communities can control what is taught and how, are we at risk of creating negative feedback loops for the sake of conserving culture?

Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada, warns us of the perils of creating a public system emulating the private one in his latest book, Value(s): Building a Better World for All:

"Allowing a parallel system for the elites is economically, socially and morally disastrous." 

If we are truly committed to including all learners in a public system that will create a better society, let's focus on what matters — values centred on sustaining a democratic society, coupled with a focus on the experience of the learners in the classroom and the practices that will move thinking and learning forward. 

This is the change we can all support.


Matt Henderson, who has a master's degree in education, is the assistant superintendent, curriculum and programs, of the Seven Oaks School Division. He is the former principal of the Maples Met School in Winnipeg and a winner of the Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Teaching. He ran for the New Democratic Party in the 2015 federal election.