March 28, 2020

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Most important education question unanswered

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/8/2019 (211 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Considering how poorly Manitoba has fared in national student testing over the past decade, it’s stunning education has been little more than a blip on the radar in the provincial election campaign.

Manitoba Grade 8 students have scored dead last in national testing in reading, math and science for the better part of the last 10 years, according to annual test results from the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. Testing of 15-year-olds by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have produced similar results, which have been at or near the bottom of the pack compared to other provinces.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The province continues to fall well behind other regions when it comes to educating youth at the K-12 level.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The province continues to fall well behind other regions when it comes to educating youth at the K-12 level.

Most Manitoba students perform at or above the national average in the three core subjects, but the province has consistently had a larger share of students performing at the bottom. There have been some modest improvements in recent years, but the relative standings haven’t changed.

Despite that, education has barely been mentioned thus far in the 2019 provincial election campaign. And when it has, it hasn’t addressed the serious problem Manitoba faces: the province continues to fall well behind other regions when it comes to educating youth at the K-12 level.

The NDP has promised to reinstate caps on class sizes for Grade 3. However, the evidence shows, under the former NDP government, the directive did nothing to improve outcomes. From 2008 on, Manitoba’s standings in national testing fell. (The Tories were voted into power in 2016.)

The NDP also pledged to put more education assistants in classrooms and recruit more French-language teachers. But nowhere did it talk about Manitoba’s poor showing in national testing and how these measures might help.

Improving outcomes will take a lot more than adding education assistants to classrooms.

The cost per student has come down somewhat since the Pallister government put limits on how much school divisions can raise property taxes. Caps have also been placed on administrative costs. None of that addresses the poor outcomes plaguing Manitoba public schools.

The Tories have promised to build 20 new schools over the next decade, but that’s more of a capital spending pledge. It has nothing to do with why many Manitoba children are struggling to learn the basics.

The Liberals haven’t addressed the problem.

Education wasn’t even mentioned during Wednesday’s televised Manitoba leaders debate.

We know throwing more money at the problem without reforming the system doesn’t work. From 2003 to 2013, per-student spending in the public school system increased 52 per cent (to $11,841 from $7,792) — a 4.3 per cent average annual increase, more than twice the rate of inflation.

What did taxpayers get? Worse outcomes and a growing public school bureaucracy. Property owners shouldered most of the cost of those increases through soaring school property taxes.

The cost per student has come down somewhat since the Pallister government put limits on how much school divisions can raise property taxes. Caps have also been placed on administrative costs.

None of that addresses the poor outcomes plaguing Manitoba public schools.

The Tories launched a review of the K-12 system earlier this year. However, the results won’t be released for some time.

Meanwhile, we’re in an election and there’s virtually no debate about the future of K–12 education.

Meanwhile, we’re in an election and there’s virtually no debate about the future of K-12 education.

That’s bad news on many fronts, including when it comes to economic growth. A strong public education system is key to having an educated workforce that can fill high-skill jobs and good-paying positions in the trades. One of the most consistent complaints heard from the business community is they have trouble finding skilled workers.

That’s not just a post-secondary education problem; it’s a K-12 problem, too.

Whatever Manitoba has been doing in public education for the past 10 to 20 years has failed miserably. Politicians talk the talk when it comes to "investing" in public education. But government has dropped the ball when it comes to ensuring children — all children — are getting a sound education.

This isn’t about money, as some politicians have tried to make it out to be. We have the evidence to prove that.

It’s about what we’re getting for our education dollars: the worst outcomes in the country.

This should be one of the top election issues. Sadly, it’s on the bottom of the pile.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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