Don’t Slam the Door on Bill 64

Commentary, Education, John Long, Peter Narth, Rodney Clifton

Country singer Kenny Chesney’s lyric “Everybody want to go heaven, but nobody want to go now” is perhaps an apt metaphor for the current debate over Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act. Everybody knows that Manitoba students underperform academically, but when change is proposed to address this fact, few want the change implemented.

Of course, it depends on what the proposed change is. Is the evident resistance to Bill 64 largely the result of the provincial government’s overriding focus on changing educational governance to solve the problem of underachievement? We think so.

Therefore, the government should arrest the implementation of Bill 64 in its current form, re-examine the report of the Commission on K-12 Education, and revise the Act focusing on the key problem and the commission’s recommendations.

The final report of the Commission, Our Children’s Success: Manitoba’s Future, was presented in March, 2020 but was not released publicly until March, 2021, along with the government’s response to it, Better Education Starts Today (BEST).       

According to its letter to the Minister of Education, the commission’s recommendations “represent the consensus…forged, and the conclusions reached after almost a year of hearings, research on successful practices in Canada and internationally, and careful and intense deliberations on what works to improve schools and to create a world-class education system”  (the Commission’s letter to the Minister of Education). For these reasons, this report should form the basis for the modernization of Manitoba’s public school system rather than the government’s current response to it.

Among its Imperatives for Improvement, the commission identified strengthening the capacity to improve teaching and learning and school-based leadership, and improving foundational skills in mathematics, literacy and other curricular areas,  as urgent and fundamental. Along with a guaranteed and viable curriculum, these factors are shown in the educational research literature to be the primary drivers of improved student achievement. 

Recognizing that governance is an important aspect of the good functioning of high-performing schools, the commission recommends a practical strategy familiar to Manitobans: “Consolidate the province’s public school boards into six to eight regional boards [each] consisting of five to seven trustees, the majority of whom would be appointed and the others elected” (Recommendation 68). The commission contends that “appointing trustees provides an opportunity to be strategic and to identify desired skills sets and a wider range of candidates who may not typically run for office.”

The commission believes that this approach “recognizes the value of local democracy, appropriate representation, and the required skill sets to tackle the tasks at hand—to improve the achievement of Manitoba’s children” (Report of the Commission, p.124). 

Contrary to the commission’s advice, Bill 64 proposes the elimination of school boards and presents an entirely novel governance scheme.

In place of school boards and other current arrangements, the government proposed a four-layered administrative structure of local School Community Councils, a Provincial Advisory Council on Education, a newly-created Provincial Education Authority or Board, and 15 Directors of Education in each newly designated Region, who will carry out the administrative duties of the Provincial Board. 

School Community Councils are to be locally elected and advisory to each school principal; all other persons involved at the remaining three levels will be appointed by the Minister.

 This novel administrative scheme for delivering public education is intended to be a counter to “[o]ur current system…with multiple levels of bureaucracy that result in a great deal of variation…”and because of “the eventual phase out of education taxes, as well as a move towards central bargaining, this complex system is no longer necessary” (Better Education Starts Today, p.10).

Is the government’s counter-proposal on governance less complex and bureaucratic? No; indeed, it is more convoluted and awkward, especially when you consider that improving student achievement is the primary goal the government claims it shares with the commission. So far, the government’s response to the commission on governance has produced skepticism and backlash that will stall the achievement of this most important goal.

This is because the governance scheme in Bill 64 is a change which is not an improvement. It is preoccupied with Ministerial oversight and is itself excessively bureaucratic. As a solution to the problem of underachievement, it is a serious deflection–indeed, faulty.

Thus, the door on Bill 64 should not be slammed shut but held ajar so that it can be redrafted, showing a clear focus on improving student achievement in Manitoba’s schools and revealing the government’s reconsideration of the Commission’s report. We think this is the best way forward from here. 

 

John Long is a former professor in the Department of Educational Administration, Foundations, and Psychology at the University of Manitoba.

Rodney Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Peter Narth is a long-time public school teacher and administrator, a former President of the Manitoba Association of Principals and the former Executive Director of Manitoba’s Technical Vocational Initiative.