After flunking Bill 64, Manitoba tries again with school reform announcement Wednesday

The Manitoba government got a rewrite in trying to reform public schooling — and tomorrow, it will announce how the system is moving forward. 

At question period on Tuesday, Education Minister Wayne Ewasko promised “good news” is coming, as he said Manitoba has been listening to the commission it tasked with examining the school system three years ago.

Ewasko later said by email that Wednesday’s announcement will set out “our government’s response to the 75 recommendations of the K-12 commission.”

Some education stakeholders were briefed Tuesday on the government’s announcement, but the province is refraining them from speaking publicly.

The Progressive Conservatives are getting another chance at making changes to the education system, after its initial reforms flunked the test of public opinion. The reforms and corresponding legislation, Bill 64, were so unpopular, the Tories scrapped it several months later. The government’s own popularity entered a tailspin around the same time.

Bill 64 would have dismantled all English-language school boards in favour of a central education authority.

It hasn’t been revealed if the new changes will be anywhere near as significant.

Removal of school boards was never in K-12 review

The sweeping changes that were initially proposed shocked observers as they ignored a key recommendation of the K-12 commission.

In 2019, Manitoba tasked that group with improving a school system whose students routinely score among the worst in the country. They embarked on a consultation tour that sometimes squeezed hundreds of people into packed halls.

But the commission never recommended the abolition of all English-language school boards, which was a key piece of Bill 64. Rather, they proposed six to eight regional school boards, with a mixture of elected and appointed school trustees. 

In response to the province dismissing the commission’s recommendation, then-education minister Cliff Cullen said the pandemic emphasized the complexities with running 37 separate school divisions and he stressed the usefulness of such bodies had dwindled since their taxation powers would eventually be eliminated with the phasing out of the education property tax.

At one point, the opposition to Bill 64 took the form of a marching band. Criticism of the bill sparked numerous protests. (Nathan Liewicki/CBC)

The province offered little Tuesday on what the government’s response to the total 75 recommendations would look like, but Heather Stefanson said it would be welcomed by Manitobans.

“We’re not going back to Bill 64, I’ll put it that way,” the premier said, after an unrelated announcement.

“But there will be some other things like curriculum and so on that I think will be very positive moving forward for our province. I think we’ve heard from parents and teachers, frankly, that they want to know what is the curriculum going to look like?” she said.

“I think those are some of the things that you’ll see come forward tomorrow and in the months ahead.”

A few weeks after becoming premier last fall, Stefanson told reporters that in choosing to revisit proposed reforms in education and rural health care, “there have been many good things …. that have been done that we can build on.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, but I think that there’s a better way to do things and a more collaborative way with Manitobans,” she said, referring by comparison to the more solitary governance approach of former premier Brian Pallister.

On Tuesday, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he wonders if the government will use its upcoming announcement to slip through some unsavoury aspects of Bill 64.

He is also cautioning the government against relying on recommendations that were crafted before the pandemic.

“I think it’s important that we update and rethink what’s needed in the education system in light of the needs right now, not in light of the needs that Brian Pallister tasked the commission with, not in light of the needs that they articulated prior to COVID-19, but based on today and the needs of the classroom kids out there right now,” he said.

The original K-12 review made numerous recommendations in a bid to improve the education system. They included starting new provincial tests for mathematics and literacy, addressing the disparities in educational opportunities for students in rural and northern communities and taking concrete actions to improve the achievement of Indigenous students, newcomers and students at risk of underachievement. 

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