The cost of the provincial government’s education property tax cut pledge is too high for the children of Manitoba. It comes at the cost of political interference in a human enterprise that should be free of the political whims of changing provincial governments, it reduces the opportunity for parents to have a say locally in the education of their children and, if it follows the lead of other provinces, it is not really a tax cut but rather a change in name with serious implications for local initiative and responsiveness.
It is ironic that such a pledge would come from a political party that claims public financial transparency prior to hearing from a review commission which, by all reports, will cost upward of $1 million. It’s hard not to see it as manipulation, vindictiveness and opportunism. Tom Brodbeck (Pallister’s property tax promise will be toughest to keep, Sept. 12) was right to ask whether the questions and implications flowing from this policy announcement have been thought through.
Western democracies have, until recently, held to the very important principle that the education of the young should be at arm’s length from the political swings of governments. In other words, the schooling of children should not be subject to, or interrupted by, political ideologies of any stripe, which lean toward indoctrination rather than education for self-governance, self-determination and contribution to public life.
Governments often wrongfully claim that being elected is licence to pursue their own ideological agendas, when the real reason for their election may be that the electorate didn’t like the alternatives other parties offered. In other provinces, the removal of the education tax label has been accompanied by myriad attempts to impose the ideologies of political parties on schools — the most recent example being proposed curriculum changes in Ontario. Partisan politics and education are simply uneasy and unwelcome bedfellows.
What should also concern all people, but especially parents, is the next part of this equation. In other provinces, even where there are still school boards, they have basically become extensions of the provincial government, unable to quickly respond to local concerns as our Manitoba boards do now. The consequence is that all new initiatives and responses have to pass through government priorities and bureaucracies, meaning decisions which now take hours or days instead take months, with children’s lives on hold.
Parents’ direct and immediate access to trustees, superintendents and principals is greatly compromised where local decision-making authority is lost.
Finally, unless this government has some fiscal magic we have not seen anywhere else, property taxes won’t go down — and the people in this government know this. They will just not be called education property taxes, and school boards will no longer have any fiscal discretion over them. In fact, the experience in other provinces is that taxes have gone up rather than down when accountability is removed from the local level.
Furthermore, the monies raised this way go into governments’ general revenues rather than being spent locally. To my knowledge, no communities have ever said they want more local money spent provincially.
The case can be made that school boards have been more sensitive to local pressures than provinces, and that school boards, although not always willingly, have complied with limits placed on tax increases by provincial governments. In fact, it can be argued that governments of all stripes have always had the authority to reduce local property taxes by increasing the grants made to school divisions rather than expecting divisions to make up shortfalls.
Similarly, the other pre-election comments regarding "top-heavy and costly administration and governance" are also in every government’s purview to address. Our government could simply place caps on senior administrative salaries, as at least one other province has done, and could likewise place caps on trustees’ indemnities.
More troubling is that these claims are being made without any reasonable argument or evidence. They suggest another fabricated crisis — people don’t like paying taxes, so we’ll use that as justification for blowing up a system that works well for most people, instead of addressing the real education issue of some children, especially children in poverty, not being served particularly well by our income distribution and social support systems.
What we need, rather than piecemeal tax relief, is what the chambers of commerce have suggested: a comprehensive review of the tax system and its purposes.
John Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.