As school boards across the province finalize their budgets for next year, the Winnipeg Free Press has once again argued for the phasing out of local school board taxing authority in Manitoba and the move to full provincial funding from general revenues (School taxes outdated, March 18).
Historically, responsibility for the funding of public schooling in Manitoba has been shared by the provincial government and the local community. The balance between each party's share of these costs has varied substantially over the years and has been of ongoing political interest, but what has not been controversial until recently has been the notion that the local public school is a community resource whose character should in some part reflect the values and interests of the community and as such should be supported financially by the community. In this regard, the influential 1959 Report of the Manitoba Royal Commission on Education (the Macfarlane Report) provided a review of these issues in a way that very closely mirrors today's debates. Taking away school board taxing authority (with its likely corollary, as the editorial suggests, of ending local bargaining) would dramatically weaken the ability of communities to make decisions locally, making school boards little more than local managers in the service of the provincial bureaucracy.
A central element in the Free Press argument is the province has not taken its responsibility for funding education seriously and as a consequence, provincial funding "of the costs of schools" has slipped from 80 per cent "decades ago" to a current level of less that 65 per cent. This is a provocative statement for at least two reasons. First, each year since it was first elected in 1999, the NDP government has kept a commitment to fund education at least at the level of economic growth and has consistently funded schools at a higher level than that. It seems harsh to call this not taking responsibility seriously. Second, it is important to make a clear distinction between "operating costs" -- broadly, the costs of running the existing school system on a yearly basis, and "total costs" -- operating costs plus all other associated costs, most notably building new schools and teacher pensions. The province funds 100 per cent of these costs, and the provincial share of the total costs of public schooling in Manitoba is, according to the 2013-14 FRAME document, 75.8 per cent. Most educational partners in the province would agree 65 per cent of operating costs might be too low a provincial share, but this is a long way from making the case for full provincial funding.
The editorial makes a further, more important, argument on the high proportion of costs coming from local property taxes -- the inequalities that this situation produces as a consequence of the differing revenue capacities of wealthy school divisions with high levels of taxable property and poorer divisions with lower levels of taxable property. These differences are substantial across the province and require poorer school divisions to either set much higher mill rates to generate needed funds or to operate with considerably lower per-pupil spending. The editorial rightly points out these inequities are serious and undermine one of the touchstones of public education -- that its costs be fairly shared. However, there are a variety of equalization strategies that can be built into a shared funding model that could quite easily address this issue. Manitoba has an equalization formula in place, but it clearly needs strengthening.
The editorial is absolutely right to define public education as "part of the social contract between citizens" and the need for its expense to be "borne by the ability to pay." But equally as important in that social contract is the right and responsibility of the public to participate meaningfully in the important decisions that affect the education of their children. To define participation simply as the ability to cast a vote in a provincial election (even assuming that education would ever be the single issue in any election) is a dangerously simplistic notion of participation. School boards and their annual budget-setting processes, for all of their limitations, provide a much stronger form of, and forum for, public participation, and the legitimacy that goes along with taxing authority is central to ensuring participation can be meaningful.
Funding our public schools adequately and fairly, and at the same time ensuring those funds are spent as wisely and effectively as possible, is of great importance to the well-being of the province. We need to have ongoing and critical public discussions about how best to do this, but let's not rush to weaken the local role of school boards in the process.
Jon Young is a professor in educational administration at the education faculty, University of Manitoba. Brian O'Leary is the superintendent in Seven Oaks School Division. They are preparing a discussion paper for the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents on adequacy, effectiveness and equity in education finance.