Why Manitoba’s Education Policy Is Deteriorating

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

The towns of Sanford and Morris, Manitoba, just outside Winnipeg, shared a mild winter with the rest of the province, but at the beginning of March they began to feel a chilly wind blowing from the Legislature. A culture clash broke out between Education Minister Drew Caldwell and the Morris-Macdonald School Division, the governing authority over the innovative high schools in both communities.

Morris-Macdonald’s offence? It succeeded in developing a superior school product and, as allowed under the 1998 Schools of Choice legislation, began to attract students from outside its boundaries.

According to the Minister, the trustees were “raiding” students from other divisions. He said their behaviour was “more like payola” and launched an investigation. When a minister uses colourful terms like “payola”, he’s implying “profiteering” (whatever that means). The Morris-MacDonald School Division considers it to be revenue generation.

The dispute centered on the division’s method of paying for the extra administrative work occasioned by the new students. The Province allots so many dollars for every warm body a school attracts, and part of that per capita grant is earmarked for administrative costs. Morris-Macdonald’s administrative cost is $138 per student, compared to the provincial average of $236. Instead of hiring more staff to handle the load, the division decided to offer part of the extra cash to its own employees in return for working longer hours. The payments amounted to seven dollars for each new entrant.

The board’s chairman slipped up big-time, at least in the eyes of the iron triangle of politicians, unions and officialdom that has dominated public education for decades and has a bald self-interest in perpetuating our aging public school monopoly. He called the extra pay “bonuses” — a term normally used in private business. An unperceptive reporter spun that remark out of context. The wind began to blow.

It’s not a lot of money, and most of it came from increased enrolment in adult education. While Sanford Collegiate has added only 40 out-of-division students to its normal roster over the last two years, it’s drawn 2,300 more to its Adult Ed programs.

This success has now been labelled as “headhunting”. But Morris-Macdonald didn’t have to “aggressively recruit” candidates. It formed partnerships with other groups that came to the division because of its superior reputation. The board had allowed its schools to innovate, and a by-product of that latitude was one of the most effective adult education programs in the province.

Where did the new people come from? Some of the partnerships developed with other government-sponsored projects targeted at groups’ most needing attention. The Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development sent students, as did Upward Bound, a program that recruits street people and individuals on social assistance, folks whose needs had not been met by existing providers. Morris-Macdonald also partnered with other divisions who didn’t have the capacity to handle the program. Is it “poaching” if your competitor willingly hands over his customers?

The animus against Morris-Macdonald has been building for years among the ranks of orthodox educators. Oak Bluff School invested more than $100,000 in new technology by lining up non-governmental sponsorships, and Sanford Collegiate received dozens of new computers by signing with YNN, which broadcasts ten minutes of news and two-and-a-half minutes of paid commercials into classrooms every day. Shortly after he was sworn in, the Minister, engaging in the type of political micromanagement that degrades public policy, vowed to forbid such arrangements.

Morris-Macdonald’s philosophy is based on a theory of site-based management under which individual schools are allowed the autonomy to experiment with new methods of instruction. The clash is between an entrepreneurial culture and a monopoly one. In the former, innovation and creativity are rewarded and performance is constantly measured. In the latter, the opposite applies — which explains why many Manitoba public schools are doing such a poor job. Alberta’s public schools openly compete for students and have significantly improved their performance by doing so.

Minister Caldwell has now cooled off on his threatened jihad against Manitoba’s most innovative school division. Still, the public has a right to be concerned. The Doer government appears to be sliding backwards against a powerful public desire to improve the uneven quality of the traditional public school product. It has a problem with measuring performance, a hallmark of good administration, so it is moving away from standards tests. Recently, the chair of Red River College resigned when the new government rescinded the previous government’s agreement to keep its board free of political appointees. When loyalty to the party in power supersedes ability and vision as the main criterion for board membership, we can’t help but drift back into the netherworld of mediocre governance in our important public institutions.

Rather than letting ideology get in the way, the Minister should look at what’s happening in Sweden’s public schools. The Social Democratic Party — the Swedish counterpart to our NDP — abandoned the old-style monopoly model in 1991. It allowed schools much more autonomy by liberating principals from the direct control of the education ministry. The National Board of Education, which once dictated every operating detail, has been replaced with the National Agency for Education, which evaluates performance through standardized tests, monitors standards to ensure they meet national curriculum goals and offers advice and intellectual support. Authorities openly state their objective: a deregulated, highly decentralized school system that relies on competition and choice to attain educational excellence.

As Mao Zedong, the late Great Helmsman used to say, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend.”