One year after Manitoba’s controversial education reforms were scrapped, a new campaign warns the principles behind them persist.
People for Public Education is a grassroots group of teachers, parents, academics, grad students and community members whose self-imposed mandate is to promote “consistent, substantive public funding for public education.”
The group formed after members began to parse through the newly released Manitoba K to 12 Action Plan — the province’s updated road map for public schooling — when it was released in April.
“I think everyone got very tired after Bill 64 and we lost sight of the fact that a lot of the ideas and ideology that was behind Bill 64 never went away,” said Ellen Bees, a teacher and parent who recently submitted a thesis that analyzes education reform plans for her master’s of education at the University of Manitoba.
“(The new plan) was designed with some very inoffensive language that would not rile people up.”
Government officials touted the now-defunct Education Modernization Act as a way to streamline services and find savings by abolishing elected school boards and replacing them with a government-appointed panel.
Red for Ed MB and Rural Voices United are among the community groups that formed to publicly denounce the sweeping reforms with lawn signs, rallies and petitions in 2021. Protesters alleged they would lose local representation and voice in their community schools if the proposed model was approved.
The new advocacy group, which declares it is non-partisan, wants to build on their success and renew concerns around the state of public education — in particular, the fact operational funding doesn’t meet the rate of inflation.
Organizers are hosting their first event, “Picnic for Public Ed” to raise awareness about their cause with speeches at The Forks on Sunday afternoon. One of the topics is how the province is borrowing money to distribute property education tax rebates and the limited information on how schools will be funded when the tax is fully phased out.
“Are they oblivious? Do they truly not know? Or is this an attempt at creeping or covert privatization?” said Shannon Moore, an assistant professor of education at the U of M.
Moore said academics are concerned about the province’s interest in private-public partnerships and as a result, the growing influence external organizations could have on public education. When schools have to fundraise due to budget shortfalls, inequities are inevitable, she said.
As far as Moore is concerned, public education is a public good that should be seen as an investment rather than a cost because students are being trained to contribute to the province’s economy and its democracy.
“When we keep using this austerity narrative that we can’t afford it, that becomes pretty normalized and that’s a dangerous way to go. We should be proudly funding (public education) — not talking about where we can make cuts,” said Melanie Janzen, associate dean of graduate programs and research at U of M’s education faculty.
Janzen said other provinces have taken concerning steps to reduce expenses and defund public education. She cited Ontario’s move to mandate high schoolers to take at least two online learning credits, and Alberta’s growing support for charter schools.
The Kuly family got involved with People for Public Education due to concerns about the legacy of Bill 64 and seeing the effect of stagnant provincial funding for K-12 schools.
Tamara Kuly said she met her son’s teacher this week and learned there are 30 registered Grade 4, 5 and 6 students in the public school classroom.
“They won’t split to a second class until they hit 33, which is unreasonable. We’re lucky that we have a teacher who’s a seasoned educator and he’s got great classroom management skills, but this can also apply to nursery and kindergarten classes, which would be untenable,” said Tamara, who is running for school trustee in the Oct. 26 election.
For Marc Kuly, the Teachers’ Idea Fund — a provincial initiative that invites educators to complete a lengthy application for a project grant — is a reminder of the province’s approach to education.
The “competitive prize fund” ensures projects that align with the central government’s values are supported, as opposed to projects valued by a local community, said Marc, a former secondary school teacher who instructs teacher candidates at the University of Winnipeg.
What raises red flags for Bees is that the province’s updated education plan uses vague language.
The plan states “advancing truth and reconciliation” and “prioritizing well-being” are guiding principles, but the province has yet to outline what actions it will take to accomplish the above, she said.
The public school educator wants to see a universal meal program, funding for land-based learning, and money to hire mental health workers, among other tangible changes.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press