Liberal leader Jon Gerrard would double the number of truancy officers in city schools and target them to the inner city to reduce dropout rates if his Grits win the Oct. 4 election.
Gerrard promised $3 million in the first year to improve graduation rates, including unspecified improvements to technical and vocational education.
"Year 1, focus on increasing the number of truancy officers," Gerrard said.
Gerrard told a news conference Thursday morning the Selinger government is deliberately covering up dropout rates by not making them public, rates which Gerrard said are as high as 50 per cent in inner-city high schools.
"The NDP don't want Manitobans to know that they've left the inner city behind," Gerrard said across the street from Gordon Bell High School.
Gerrard said the source of his claim of a 50 per cent dropout rate was a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. His staff later amended the figure to 45 per cent.
"The NDP have been ignoring inner-city schools for 12 years," Gerrard said.
Education Minister Nancy Allan later said that overall graduation rates have increased from 71 to 82 per cent since the NDP took office, but she won't give numbers for individual schools.
"We're not covering up anything. We've always said we're not interested in ranking schools, we don't want to stigmatize schools -- that would not be in the best interests of students," Allan said.
CCPA Manitoba executive director Shauna MacKinnon said that it is unfair for Gerrard to take one statistic out of context.
"To say in the press release they're ignored -- that's so untrue," MacKinnon said. "I'm not thrilled when someone uses our material and pulls out a stat. We put it in a lot of context."
MacKinnon said that the highest dropout rate cited in any CCPA report is 44.2 per cent, based on 2006 StatsCan data for Winnipeg's lowest-income neighbourhoods which tracked students who had started Grade 9 in 2001.
But, said MacKinnon, graduation rates in the inner city are improving, especially among young adults who dropped out due to various socioeconomic circumstances and later returned to finish high school under Bright Futures, Urban Circle, Pathways to Education, off-campus high school programs, and other adult programs at public high schools.
Gerrard pointed at his news conference to an empty field next to Gordon Bell intended as a playing field or green space, as evidence of NDP neglect of inner-city students.
"They'd promised the field ready for this fall -- more neglect," he charged.
"I never said that," countered Allan. "No one in government ever said it would open this fall."
The NDP government paid $5.3 million to acquire and develop the former auto dealership, and turned it over to Winnipeg School Division.
Gerrard's main strategy to increase graduation rates is to double truancy officers from what he said were the current two in WSD and one in River East Transcona and put them on staff.
WSD currently contracts 2.5 full-time equivalent truancy officers from a private company; River East Trancona and Louis Riel divisions have one apiece.
"Right now, they're being run off their feet," Gerrard said.