Manitoba has a $1.9-billion public education system annually distributed through a complicated, convoluted, complex and confusing funding formula.
The local ability to offer programs, teachers and services within a supposedly equitable system is hugely affected by the assessed value of residential and business properties within a school division.
Good luck to candidates trying to explain that on the doorstep.
More than three-dozen factors such as special-needs kids, busing, French immersion and technology determine how much annual operating money a division gets from the province.
Toss in provincial tax incentive grants, equalization payments and orders to spend down contingency reserve funds (a.k.a. surpluses) and things get even weirder.
Premier Greg Selinger is running on 12 years of having increased funding to public education every year, even at the height of the recession, while pointing to the freezes and cuts the Tories made in the 1990s.
"Our funding has consistently grown every year," Selinger told the Manitoba Teachers’ Society leadership debate in late August. "We’ve never cut funding for public education, as it was cut in the past.
"That’s the risk we have in this election — who do you trust? They’ll (Tories) cut education just as they have in the past."
No, they won’t, Tory leader Hugh McFadyen countered, though he won’t promise to increase education funding.
"We want to move toward funding through general revenue... over time, we want to be realistic here. It’s not going to be done overnight. We’re not going to make promises we can’t keep."
McFadyen has consistently refused to say what the Conservatives would do for education — the NDP is really bad, the Tories would talk to people and then do better, just about sums up his education platform up to now.
McFadyen allowed the Filmon Tories went too far in the 1990s in their cuts, necessary to balance the provincial budget. As premier, he’ll be faced with a huge debt left by the NDP, McFadyen said.
The Tories will set a goal of reducing class sizes, with 20 students per class a reasonable target, but not a firm cap number, said McFadyen.
Liberal leader Dr. Jon Gerrard says the Grits would move to paying 80 per cent of the existing education operating budget through general revenues — a promise that means finding about $300 million now covered by education property taxes.
The elephant in the room, Border Land School Division teacher Kerry Enns said at that leaders’ debate, is not provincial revenue and property taxes, but how much money overall and how it’s shared and spent within the public schools.
Selinger has hinted at only one campaign promise — a reduction in class size in early grades, though not a cap on class size.
McFadyen said the Conservatives won’t try to resurrect the Filmon Tories’ passion for imposing standards tests across the province and publishing school-by-school scores.
Gerrard made it clear he’ll campaign on reducing dropout rates and improving preschool assessment of kids, to help them overcome learning problems before they even start school.
Sure, funding for the public education system is a high-priority issue, but there are umpteen hot-button topics on which the parties should take a stand:
Report cards — The NDP is piloting a new report card template in selected schools this year, for provincewide implementation a year from now. They’re supposed to tell parents in plain English how their kids are doing — whether they can read or write at the grade level.
Aboriginal education — The quality of education Ottawa provides in First Nations schools is arguably well below what kids get in public schools — regardless of jurisdiction, pressure is growing to give aboriginal kids living on reserves the same opportunities as public school students.
Building new schools in suburbs — The NDP has shied away from building new schools in the suburbs, preferring to use empty desks in older neighbourhoods several kilometres away.
Future of school boards — Is there one? We’re the final province to give trustees taxing authority, and the government has eroded trustees’ autonomy and powers each year. Less than half of Manitoba’s school board seats were contested last fall, barely one-quarter of the seats outside the three largest cities required an election.
Drop-out and graduation rates — improving, but still not great. The NDP can point to numerous stay-in-school and off-campus programs, as well as the new legislation keeping students in school until 18 unless they graduate earlier. The Tories and Liberals will attack the NDP record, but what ideas do they have to make things better?
And not to overlook postsecondary education:
Capital funding — Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent or committed, there remains a long wish list:
- University of Manitoba will develop the former Southwood golf course;
- University of Winnipeg wants a new physics building on Langside Street;
- Red River College wants a heavy equipment transportation centre and casts covetous eyes at the Public Safety Building, which would need considerable renovations and upgrades;
- Assiniboine Community College and University College of the North have enormous additional phases to their ongoing expansions.