Province must justify bold education plan

With its overhaul of K-12 public education, the Progressive Conservative government of Manitoba has bitten off a mouthful of public policy hopes and aspirations — so much so that it might prove to be more than it can chew.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/03/2021 (744 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With its overhaul of K-12 public education, the Progressive Conservative government of Manitoba has bitten off a mouthful of public policy hopes and aspirations — so much so that it might prove to be more than it can chew.

Under the terms of its long-awaited K-12 Education Review, the provincial government will take over all contract negotiations with teachers and other unionized employees. In many ways, this makes sense — though education is funded by both property taxes and government grants, the latter source has grown significantly to the point that government, and not individual school divisions, should be responsible for collective bargaining.

Also sensible is an effort to eliminate the education portion of property taxes and replace it with a more transparent system of education funding. This is an enormous task and, given the fiscal pressures created by the pandemic, it’s not clear if or when this could happen.

However, taking away responsibility for bargaining and eliminating the education property taxes has triggered a cascade of other policy changes: with centralized bargaining, one almost certainly needs to consider whether elected school trustees are necessary; and once trustees are no longer being elected, one needs to reconsider the number of school divisions in an effort to find economies of scale.

It all seems to make sense on the surface. But dig a bit deeper, and a whole host of problems arises.

Bigger is not always better, or more efficient, when it comes to bureaucracy. Although the idea of eliminating layers of duplication in the administration of public education seems appealing, there is no guarantee that dramatically fewer people will be needed to operate the single school district proposed to serve Winnipeg — which will encompass more than 100,000 students — than was required in six separate divisions within the city.

There are also concerns around the responsiveness of public education. One size most definitely does not fit all when it comes to learning, and larger bureaucracies are decidedly less agile in almost all respects. That could lead to boilerplate education solutions being applied to a school system, with little concern about the social or economic circumstances that dramatically alter the learning process in different parts of the city.

Can one big division in Winnipeg meet the busing needs of the suburbs while devoting equal attention to the need for school breakfast and lunch programs in the core of the city? Such questions remain unanswered by this week’s policy announcement.

Free Press columnist and educator Niigaan Sinclair has also raised legitimate concerns about the impact the amalgamation policy will have on Indigenous education. For many years, Indigenous communities fought for culturally appropriate approaches to learning that are very much threatened by a policy that attempts to apply a single bureaucracy to the entire city.

Premier Brian Pallister’s government has promised a degree of responsiveness through a complicated parent-advisory structure that will see some parents apppointed and others elected to advisory councils providing guidance to the province’s 15 new, larger school regions. This proposal at best replicates the essence of the existing advisory council structure; at worst, it amounts to a shell game that will dilute parent input.

It makes sense for government to assume control of contract talks, and there are many Manitobans who would welcome the elimination of the education portion of property taxes. But the Pallister government has yet to fully justify the dramatic reduction in the number of school divisions.

As this policy evolves with public input, more work needs to be done to explain how a smaller number of bigger divisions will be better. To date, that case has not been made.

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