Education benefits from election-year largesse
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It seems Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government is, at last, interested in boosting funding for key public institutions — at least when it serves the party’s political interests.
Students, parents and educators received a rare bit of good news last week, when Education Minister Wayne Ewasko announced a six per cent increase to public education funding for the 2023-24 school year.
“This is astronomical,” Mr. Ewasko said of the funding hike, the largest such increase in at least 25 years.
The province will allocate an additional $100 million to primary and secondary schools next year for operating costs, inflation pressures, capital support payments, special needs programming and independent schools. While Manitoba’s complex education funding model is yet to be updated — the PCs’ introduction of a more equitable formula has been delayed — every school division will receive a budget top-up next year.
Perhaps most importantly, the province has updated its annual funding guarantee to 100 per cent, making school-board budgets more predictable in the long run. The government has also committed to making permanent $106 million worth of “one time” grants introduced last year.
The injection of cash and promise of stability is welcome news after years of cuts and uncertainty.
Little more than two years ago, Manitoba’s school system was facing major upheaval under former premier Brian Pallister’s proposed Education Modernization Act. The widely unpopular Bill 64 aimed to eliminate elected trustees and consolidate the province’s 36 English school divisions into a single board.
Mr. Pallister also introduced a fraught tax credit to reimburse teachers for classroom supplies purchased out of pocket — a veiled attempt at addressing classroom funding inadequacies while passing the buck, literally, onto educators.
The proposed act was scrapped when Premier Heather Stefanson took charge, but the new provincial leader has remained committed to the party’s 2019 election promise of eliminating education property taxes.
The associated rebates have been framed as one component of the aforementioned school funding model overhaul. Yet, without a new model in place — Mr. Ewasko has said more consultation is needed — the cheques have, thus far, been a costly public-relations exercise with no measurable improvements to the education system.
The effort doesn’t appear to have paid off politically, either. According to a poll conducted last fall, a majority of Manitobans would rather see government rebate dollars redirected to public services such as health care, schools and infrastructure.
The announced education funding hike may be portrayed as an indication Ms. Stefanson is actually “listening to Manitobans.” More likely: it’s a necessary carrot during an election year for a party plagued by high-profile caucus departures and plummeting public support.
“We understand the importance of providing equitable funding across the province,” Mr. Ewasko said during his remarks. One can’t help wondering: can this possibly be a sudden realization on the government’s part or, if not, why has it taken until an election year to act on such an understanding?
Voters can expect many similar lofty funding announcements before they head to the polls in October. Whether these last-ditch efforts to sway support will be enough to atone for the PC record of restructuring and underfunding public institutions over the last two terms is yet to be seen.
For public-sector leaders, at least, the education funding seems to be too little too late.
“It’s going to allow the system to tread water,” Manitoba Teachers’ Society president James Bedford told the Free Press.
The time for “listening” is over. Ms. Stefanson’s task now is to prove that Manitobans’ desires for properly funded, well-functioning public services have been heard.
Updated on Friday, February 3, 2023 10:42 PM CST: Clarifies Bill 64 relates to English school divisions