Bill 13 – Mainstreaming Mania

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

The contentious problem of special education in Manitoba’s public schools will almost certainly be made worse by new legislation that awaits proclamation. Bill 13, a seemingly innocuous amendment, quietly passed in the legislature early last summer and now – after the fact – in the “consultation” stage, will entrench into law those elements of the current system that are already working poorly. It makes a mockery of local control by school divisions and will burden them with even more onerous and expensive regulations.

This issue does require attention. The method now used to fund special needs students provides school divisions with strong incentives to overestimate their numbers and to maximize revenues by administrative sleight of hand. But instead of correcting that, Bill 13, an amendment to the Public Schools Act entitled “Appropriate Educational Programming,” further centralizes and transfers decision-making to the Minister of Education.

Bill 13 empowers the Minister to “make regulations respecting appropriate educational programming to be provided by school boards” in two areas. The first is “programming standards respecting resources and other support services” provided by school boards and the second establishes a formal dispute resolution process should parents and local administrators disagree on the programming offered.

The impact of Bill 13 will be considerable and its potential costs staggering. Over the past twenty years, funding for special education has increased by 300% while overall education spending has increased by less than 50%. These programs now absorb 14% of Manitoba’s public school spending. When Bill 13 is proclaimed, these costs are certain to increase, particularly in divisions that have managed to keep them lower.

Most public school buildings built over fifty years ago would have to be torn down or dramatically renovated should the Minister exercise his new powers to require that all schools be wheelchair accessible. What this will mean for the Public Schools Finance Board, already reluctant to build schools in areas bursting with new students, can only be imagined. Students in growing suburbs can look forward to even longer bus rides, since virtually every new school and renovation approved over the next few years would be related to a Bill 13 regulation.

The first time that the provincial government has attempted to involve itself in drafting regulations on programming for special needs students, Bill 13 effectively ends the ongoing debate over the advantages and disadvantages of mainstreaming and entrenches it as a permanent policy. Even through the integration of severely disabled students into a regular classroom setting has never been proven to benefit them or other students, a centralized directive will now do that by fiat.

By forcing classroom teachers to assume further responsibility for disabled students, the policy reduces the amount of time they can spend teaching the non disabled. At least under the current system, divisions have some flexibility in determining the level to which severely disabled students will be integrated. Does the government really believe that a cabinet minister sitting at his desk in Winnipeg is in a better position to determine a student’s needs than professional educators working in schools in Dauphin, Brandon or Thompson?

Bill 13 also significantly expands the adversarial potential of special education. Disagreements between parents and school boards over appropriate facilities and programs – a common occurrence – will face a formal process of dispute resolution. A procedure that allows a parent to bypass local officials and make an appeal directly to the Minister could result in an avalanche of litigation.

As the Manitoba Association of School Trustees noted in its recent submission to the government on Bill 13, rural school divisions generally have greater difficulty recruiting personnel with the specialized training required to teach handicapped students. Province-wide mandates will widen the gap between urban and rural divisions as the latter are forced to pay abnormally high salaries to recruit additional staff.

Why was Bill 13 proposed in the first place? It was recommended in 1999 by the Manitoba Special Education Review, allegedly to achieve consistency with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government of Manitoba says it’s needed as part of its “philosophy of inclusion,” to make “every individual feel accepted, valued and safe.” Apparently it doesn’t matter that we make classrooms impossibly chaotic and much more expensive; we will acquire some warm and fuzzy feelings.

The Manitoba Teachers Society, the teachers` union, might be expected to protect its members from such nonsense. Instead, it is trumpeting Bill 13 and the latest issue of their bi-monthly newsletter deplores the current, decentralized and more flexible situation as an inconsistent “patchwork.” “Teachers also believe that medical procedures and supports, justice system matters, or other issues concerning children in care,” the union adds as an afterthought, “should not be . . . totally funded by education dollars.” Who is going to pay for the costs associated with the implementation of these new directives from government? Perhaps the plan is to have other government departments climb a money tree and pick the dollars that will be required by an already costly provincial education system.

Unfortunately, this type of social engineering puts the public school system at a disadvantage. It is one more reason for parents to spend a little more on private and independent schooling options for their children in order to avoid the frequently disruptive ideological ballast of mainstreaming.

The government should delay the implementation of Bill 13 pending a planned, realistic, system-wide review of special education in Manitoba.