Last month, the provincial government released the results of its long-awaited K-12 Education Review. While much will be made about the stated goals of "modernizing," "reforming" and searching for "efficiencies," the effects of the Public Schools Modernization Act will be both anti-democratic and discriminatory.
The proposed changes are undemocratic by design. They eliminate elected school boards and the ability of citizens to shape educational policy. They are to be replaced by new "school community councils," at least in theory. Years after Nova Scotia’s very similar changes (guided by Manitoba’s lead consultant, Avis Glaze), few schools have functioning councils. What councils exist, however, have little power.
As is demonstrated by Canada’s "duty to consult" with First Nations, a seat at the table is not the same as having a say in critical decisions. At the end of the process, the government does what it wants. We should assume the parent councils are intended to be "influential" only so far as their input is congruent with the wishes of real policy-makers.
Council participation will be far easier for those with ample time and income. This will almost certainly ensure that those parents from working-class, Indigenous, refugee and single-parent households will be much less likely to have their voices heard.
Many of these more influential parents will be among those now able to opt their children out of "potentially sensitive content" — a dog whistle that will keep some students from receiving comprehensive sex education, including updated lessons on consent, sexuality and gender diversity. Maybe this helps explain why Winnipeg, with its relatively diverse population and complex challenges, merits only one region and rural Manitoba — with less than half the provincial population — gets 14. If only the Progressive Conservatives could redraw the election boundaries as easily.
The Pallister government is also suffering from what political scientist Janice Stein has called "the cult of efficiency": finding success in the reduction of spending, regardless of the effects. While in theory this pushes public services to run like businesses, business people know that such an approach will inevitably lead to underinvestment and subsequent collapse. One wonders to what extent that is precisely the goal.
There are plenty of examples of these tactics from south of the border (and Deputy Premier Kelvin Goertzen could probably tell us all about the ideas of such luminaries as Ted Cruz and Betsy DeVos, with whom he participated in webinars). With a declared commitment to increased standardized testing, Manitoba moves down the path laid out by punitive programs such as George W. Bush’s "No Child Left Behind," which resulted in schools competing against each other for pieces of a shrinking educational funding pie.
Schools in relatively affluent communities will have little to fear from an increase in standardized testing. They will continue to have robust educational programming. In schools with more poor, Black and Indigenous students, however, experience teaches us that increased testing will threaten all "extras": guidance services and nutritional programs, as well as physical education, music and art. In efforts not to be declared "failing," schools also face new temptations to reject (or expel) particular types of students for fear they will lower test scores.
There is little joy in schools that exist only to prepare students to pass tests. Creative pedagogy in such settings is generally seen by administration as a waste of precious time. As such, creative and energetic educators often leave at the first opportunity. Such schools punish with inferior education precisely those students, neighbourhoods and communities that are already the targets of racial oppression.
All of this has contributed significantly to the ongoing polarization of cities — not least through the growing phenomenon of the "school-to-prison pipeline."
There are alternatives. Recent studies have Manitoba’s child poverty rate 49.6 per cent higher than the national average, while Manitoba’s math results trail the national average by 6.3 per cent. And although DeVos, Goertzen and current Education Minister Cliff Cullen might not agree, there are clear, established connections between child poverty and diminished school performance.
A government committed to the success and well-being of its entire community would focus on the greater need and launch a multi-pronged anti-poverty strategy with greater support for struggling families and communities. The Pallister government has instead chosen to focus on the far-smaller deficit — the one it is ideologically and self-interestedly inclined to address. And it has done so in ways that will further empower the wealthiest and whitest Manitobans.
Kelly Reimer and Brock Brown are members of Manitoba Educators for Social Justice.