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What if the Tories had won in 1999?

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I got asked a pretty intriguing question last night, when I was speaking to a graduate students’ seminar at the Univeristy of Manitoba faculty of education.

One grad student wondered how things in public education might have been different had the Tories won the 1999 election.

We’ll never know, of course, though in the parallel universe we’ve so far only glimpsed on Fringe, Ron Schuler may be the provincial education minister.

But we know what the Tories were doing in 1999 when they were so rudely interrupted, and what the New Democrats have done differently.

Certainly, the annual changes in operating grants for public education from the Filmon Conservatives through the 1990s were much lower than they’ve been under the NDP. The funding formula, the reliance on property taxes, the inequality of the commercial assessment base, all of those may be as complex and confusing and convoluted as ever, but the New Democrats have been pumping some serious money into education, more than the Filmon Tories did back in the day.

Yes, I’m sure the Tories are saying right this instant that they would have injected far more money into education this past decade than the have the N-Dippers, and far more prudently and wisely, but we’ll never know.

The Tories tested kids, and planned far more extensive testing, in more grades and more subjects. The NDP has instead ditched most tests other than Grade 12 language arts and math, worth 30 per cent — they were on their way to 50 per cent of the year’s mark under the Conservatives — in favour of diagnostic assessments.

Anyone recall the grades 3 and 12 testing back around 1997 and 1998? The Filmon government published the results, division by division, school by school, and anyone who wanted to draw the conclusion that those scores that showed one school was better than another, or that one school’s teachers had performed better and worked harder than another school’s faculty, was free to do so. Where would that have led?

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is pretty much the Doer government’s biggest fan club — Doer and Education Minister Peter Bjornson can get a standing ovation at teachers’ conventions just by walking in — but the union was much less fond of the Conservatives. Of course, the NDP caucus has a lot more teachers than does the Tory caucus.

We still have no teachers strike/lockout in Manitoba. The way arbitration now works under the NDP sees teachers throughout the province get whatever higher wage or increased benefit that one bargaining unit in one division first achieves.

Would the government and the teachers have been at each other’s throats in Manitoba by now, the way they were in Ontario under Mike Harris’s right-wing Tory government? We’ll never know, but here and now they’re like totally BFF.

Remember back to 1999, and the first year or two the NDP was in power.

The Tories were increasing the operating grants to private schools, and had provided operating grants to private, faith-based postsecondary schools. The NDP froze those annual increases, and pretty much ignores private schools.

Virtually the first thing the New Democrats did after moving into office was ban YNN.

Anyone remember the Youth News Network? That was the outfit from down east that was making its pitch to schools across the country — here’s a huge package of nifty technology, including putting TVs in classrooms, in return for having your students watching our (amateurish) ‘news’ broadcasts in class each day, complete with commercials. A captive audience for the sponsors.

YNN had thought it could make a go here, because in the latter months of the Filmon government, the province was encouraging school divisions to find their own innovative revenue sources.

Some of the most eager swashbuckling free enterprisers in the late 90s were senior educators in the former Morris-Macdonald School Division, who signed up thousands of new students recruited to study in adult learning centres, most of which were located outside the division’s boundaries.

Several senior administrators in Morris-Macdonald received $7-a-head bonuses for each new adult student recruited. Each student, of course, came with provincial per-student operating grants.

The new NDP government found itself with a financial scandal, it fired the school board and put Morris-Macdonald under trusteeship, and there was a contentious investigation into adult learning centres.

Schools were selling naming rights to classrooms to drum up cash back then, school divisions were cutting deals with businesses such as YNN — where would that have led these 10 years later?

Meanwhile, I’m sure the comments box below will fill with Hugh McFadyen and Ron Schuler letting us all know the details of the much improved public education system we’ll have after the next election.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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