As thousands of anti-Bill 64 signs pop up on front yards across the province, Manitoba’s education minister held a news conference to dismiss critics of his government’s controversial reform legislation as politically motivated fearmongers.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen spoke to the public virtually, from the basement of the legislature Monday afternoon, to accuse the school boards association, the official Opposition, and teachers society leadership of running misinformation campaigns "to instil fear and anxiety in parents and educators."
The Education Modernization Act, which was unveiled three months ago, alongside the K-12 review and five-year Better Education Starts Today strategy, will replace elected boards with a centralized authority of government appointees.
To date, at least five campaigns — run by the Manitoba School Boards Association, Manitoba Teachers’ Society, parents and teachers who make up the ProtectEdMB collective, Manitoba NDP, and Manitoba Liberals, respectively — have been launched against the legislation.
"The groundswell of support has caught them off-guard and it’s, frankly, just getting started. His press conference today was excellent in terms of the attention that it has drawn to the opposition," said Alan Campbell, president of the school boards association, a non-partisan entity that started the Local Voices, Local Choices movement.
Cullen touts Bill 64 as legislation that will empower parents with new local school councils and redirect up to $40 million to front-line classrooms by streamlining administrative costs. Critics, however, have raised concerns ranging from loss of local democracy when trustees are eliminated to the possibility for partisanship in education with political appointments.
Asked twice about whether the minister could name specific associations, supporters, or describe the majority of people he claims support Bill 64, Cullen spoke generally about both proponents for the initial K-12 review and hearing positive feedback.
When responding to another question about why so many parents are raising concerns about the bill if it is supposed to empower them, Cullen said the point of the news conference was to provide facts about the province’s five-year plan.
He repeatedly appealed to Manitobans to do their own research and analyze the province’s strategy.
Also Monday, Cullen accused the teachers union of joining the Manitoba Federation of Labour, which has donated to the NDP in the past, and pressuring teachers to purchase NDP memberships — which was later disputed by MTS president James Bedford.
"What political affiliations you wish to have are your business and your business alone, and I would say that to any member," said Bedford, adding he has no plans to ever join a political party.
Opposition parties accused the province of ironically spreading misinformation during the news conference.
The province released a fact-check sheet on its plans that includes "sleight of hand" and "word play" throughout, said NDP Leader Wab Kinew. "Government is hearing the critics, but it refuses to listen to the concerns."
Meantime, Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberals, spoke to reporters about the irony of the Monday conference when provincial officials have been dishonest about where the idea to abolish school boards came from dating to the initial release of Bill 64.
At least 14,700 anti-Bill 64 signs have been distributed so far, per data provided individually by different campaigns Monday to the Free Press.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.