The controversial Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act, was one of five bills officially withdrawn by interim Premier Kelvin Goertzen on the first day of a new legislative session on Wednesday.
The now-dead education bill received incredible pushback from vast segments of Manitobans, including teachers, school administrators and families, said Brandon University political scientist Kelly Saunders.
“A lot of rural communities and northern communities were very, very concerned over the ways it would impact education in non-urban areas, and for good reason,” Saunders said.
While many will be breathing a sigh of relief now that Bill 64 has been withdrawn, Saunders said, there are still concerns and questions regarding what will replace it.
It’s surprising education reform has not been a larger topic in the Progressive Conservative leadership race for premier, Saunders noted. Leadership candidates Heather Stefanson and Shelly Glover have come out saying Bill 64 is dead and the government will follow up on the next steps of education reform.
However, there has been little discourse outside the open-ended promises to collaborate with Manitobans.
“Education, like health care, is a very important policy issue facing families and Manitobans. I hope that it is talked about more in the days to come,” Saunders said.
In April, The Brandon Sun reported the proposed Bill 64 would see Manitoba’s 37 school divisions merged into 15 regional catchment areas, but elected school boards would also be dissolved in favour of a single provincial authority. The education minister said the proposed move was designed to redirect $40 million worth of unnecessary administrative costs to the classroom.
If the current government fails to address and provide definitive visions about the future of education in the province, Saunders said, Manitobans will be looking for these ideas from whoever becomes premier on Oct. 30.
She added it is an essential discussion for the Progressive Conservatives, since they are looking to win over women and urban voters.
“Those are the cohorts that really care about education, women in particular. A lot of women are caring for family members or community members that are in the education system, and a lot of women are teachers themselves,” Saunders said. “It’s surprising that if they want to target women voters that they’re not thinking about the policy areas.”
Manitobans have been largely focused on the pandemic for the past 18 months, she said, and the global health crisis is affecting schools. One can see how the different provincial health mandates across various school divisions in the province need to meet the unique needs of areas based on COVID-19 outbreaks, location and other factors.
“It really shows why Bill 64 was not a well thought-out approach to education reform moving forward,” Saunders said. “Already, schools are facing the impact of the challenges in having a forced one-size-fits-all policy.”
Saunders added there is a need to ensure the local community is reflected in policy decisions and local voices are heard.
There are many challenges facing the education system, and there is a need to reform — including designing a new Bill 64.
“What that new Bill 64 is going to look like is still a cause for a lot of concern and consternation, especially [in] rural communities,” Saunders said.
Bill 64 showed the current provincial government wanted to centralize educational governance dramatically reducing the number of school boards and concentrating decision-making in Winnipeg and other urban centres.
“I think a lot of concerns that people have is that education needs to be decentralized, that local communities still need a real voice in what their local school systems look like and what their local schools look like,” Saunders said. “There still needs to be a rural voice, a community voice in how education is going to be delivered in the province.”
Urban and rural residents face different challenges and have unique concerns across all policy sectors, which can be seen in education, health care, infrastructure, economic development and other areas.
“The needs of rural schools, rural students and rural families are different, in some cases, than the needs of urban centres. We want to see that reflected in all policy areas,” Saunders said. “[Bill] 64 really undermined that and didn’t pay justice or respect to the needs of rural schools and rural families.”
Saunders said the Tories have likely learned from the pushback against the bill that a “one-size-fits-all” is not the way to go.
A new document will replace Bill 64 as some type of educational reform is needed for the province, and the government has promised updates will take place in the education system.
“What those reforms are going to look like is really the open-ended, million-dollar question right now,” Saunders said.
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun