IT’s said that if the only tool you have is a hammer then every problem better be a nail. The province’s Better Education Starts Tomorrow plan (Bill 64) is a hammer. The problems to be solved in education are not nails.
Some of what is proposed by the province makes sense, much of it does not.
The province is right to be concerned about inequities in resource allocation. There are huge differences in spending and in mill rates across the province.
The province is also right to be concerned about achievement gaps for Indigenous students trapped in poverty, and for the many children in care in Manitoba. A 51 per cent graduation rate for Indigenous students is unacceptable. Outcomes for the 11,000 children in care are even worse. We must do better.
The first problem is easily solved. A uniform provincial mill rate and a fair funding formula can correct these inequities if there is the will to correct them.
The second problem — the impact of poverty on outcomes — isn’t quite so simple. Poverty affects outcomes, but it doesn’t determine them. Schools can’t do everything, but they can do something. So what is it that schools can do and how can they do it well? We know what works.
Pre-school programming and parent support works. Helping kids as soon as they experience difficulty works. Frequent feedback and encouragement from teachers works. School nutrition programs work. Culturally relevant programming and staff that reflect the community works.
Keeping expectations and interests high works. High-quality teaching works. Strong, caring relationships and mentorship works.
We also know what doesn’t work. Approaches that take students away from good teaching, healthy peers and high expectations don’t work. Approaches that label students and blame them for their difficulties don’t work.
We don’t need broad-scale reform to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. A comprehensive system-wide reorganization will inevitably direct attention and resources away from the important task of making a difference for students.
Beyond the priorities of equity and outcomes, the proposed reforms of Bill 64 are founded on some questionable assumptions. The province asserts that Manitoba has more school divisions than any other province. Manitoba has 37 school divisions. Of the provinces west of Quebec, only Saskatchewan, with 27 school divisions, has fewer. Alberta has 61 school divisions, British Columbia has 60 and Ontario has 76. Vancouver, like Winnipeg, has six school divisions. All have elected trustees.
Bill 64 abolishes all school divisions in favour of a single, unelected and unaccountable education authority. It will almost inevitably be impersonal, bureaucratic and slow to respond. When Winnipeg moved to code red last fall, Seven Oaks School Division established a remote-learning option for 600 students within a week. The province opened its remote-learning centre months later, with a budget of $10 million, to serve 600 students.
Bill 64 establishes a stronger role for parents through advisory councils. Enhancing the power of parent advisory councils has been tried and abandoned in New Zealand and the U.K., for the simple reason that parents’ participation waned. Parents would much rather come to school to celebrate and support their children; few attend parent council, but everyone goes to concerts and parent-teacher meetings.
The province asserts that Manitoba’s administrative costs are too high. Those costs are already capped by the province. The administrative costs of Winnipeg school divisions are already lower than those of Calgary and Edmonton.
We continue to weather the pandemic. There is no easy path back to normal. We’ve been successful where enough individuals change their behaviour in ways that limit transmission of the virus. The vaccines are the product of dedicated and talented scientists working around the clock. There is no statute or organization chart that will cure COVID-19 or improve schools.
Schools have been working flat-out to navigate the challenge of COVID-19, to stay open and stay safe. Throughout COVID-19, our school systems have demonstrated remarkable resilience and perseverance. And we’re not done yet. The province is still in code red. High school students still attend only every second day. We have no extra curricular activities. Thousands are still being home-schooled or being taught remotely.
We’re not yet clear on the full impact of the pandemic. It has resulted in learning loss, especially for our younger and more vulnerable students, and it has impacted all students’ mental health and physical fitness. What’s needed now is a period of calm and stability, a period of recovery, a chance for us all to catch our breath.
Schools and the people who work in them need to be valued and supported. They should be thanked for their work throughout the pandemic, not hammered.
Brian O’Leary is superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division.