Scaled-down Manitoba education reform plan leaves school boards in place

Manitoba officials have revealed a scaled-down vision of education reform that promises changes to standardized tests and a permanent online school, but doesn’t go nearly as far as controversial legislation the provincial government proposed last year.

The action plan announced at a Wednesday afternoon news conference, in response to recommendations from the province’s kindergarten to Grade 12 education commission, does not include the elimination or consolidation of school boards.

That proposal was at the centre of the education reform Bill 64 last year, which led to significant public backlash. The Progressive Conservative government eventually withdrew the legislation.

The province says it heard in consultations that the plan to scrap the school boards went too far, and that the changes included in the new plan are meant to improve student outcomes and ensure an inclusive and equitable education system.

“We heard loud and clear from Manitobans that they didn’t want us to change the governance structure within the Manitoba K-12 system, and so that’s part of the reason were not moving forward with those recommendations,” Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at Templeton School in Winnipeg.

Ewasko made the announcement alongside Seven Oaks School Division superintendent Brian O’Leary and Arthur E. Wright Community School principal Harpreet Panag.

O’Leary says he’s pleased to see the new direction the province’s education reform plans are taking.

“It’s said if you want to go somewhere fast go alone, if you want to go far go together, and I view the shift in policy of the province as: ‘We’d like to go far, and we’d like to go together,'” he said.

Lessons from pandemic

Some of the changes announced Wednesday have already been implemented, while others will begin over the next 12 to 24 months.

That includes a plan to have a permanent online high school up and running by this time next year.

This would be part of an overall remote learning strategy that draws in lessons learned over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also enabling students to access programs that aren’t available in their community.

Manitoba will assess students provincewide at Grade 10 rather than Grade 12, and is looking at releasing data on student performance at a school level, in addition to data across school divisions and the province as a whole.

That latter change, which was part of the K-12 commission recommendations, will take longer to implement, because the province must first determine what the data is, and how it will be used.

During a Wednesday morning background technical briefing with reporters before Ewasko’s announcement, an education official said data is not intended to be used to evaluate the performance of individual schools or compare them to others.

The province says it will also develop a plan to assess the “effectiveness” of the school system. 

That includes plans to implement new report cards within two years that reflect the needs of students who require extra classroom supports.

There will also be more early interventions for students who need help, and each principal will take steps to improve the performance of Indigenous students, the province says.

Commission recommendations

Manitoba’s K-12 commission, launched in 2019, made 75 recommendations in its report. The province delayed releasing that report due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but eventually published it in 2021, along with its reform legislation, Bill 64.

While the commission did not recommend scrapping school boards entirely, it did recommend consolidating them into six or eight from the current 38, but the action plan announced Wednesday makes no changes to the number of divisions.

It also does not include the commission’s recommendation to remove principals and vice-principals from the bargaining unit including teachers, or a call to create business manager positions to advise principals.

James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers Society, the union representing educators in the province, says he’s pleased to see those recommendations set aside.

“It’s a clear acknowledgement that schools are not businesses,” he said.

“We have a long history of collegial relationships within our schools. I think it’s one of the things that makes our schools successful for students, and seeing principals and vice-principals remain within that bargaining unit, remain within the society, speaks toward that recognition of that collegiality.”

New attendance policy

Some recommendations from the commission that were incorporated into the province’s latest action plan include new provincial tests for math and literacy, addressing disparities in education for rural and northern students, and taking action to improve outcomes for Indigenous and newcomer students.

“How are we closing the gap between the achievement of our Indigenous and non-Indigenous students? That’s in our forefront,” Panag said.

Building on the work of the Education Poverty Task Force, which is looking at ways to remove barriers to education for students, the province also plans implement a new attendance policy to support student engagement.

While he’s pleased to see an emphasis on mental health and removing barriers related to poverty, Bedford says he would like to have seen a universal meal program included in the plan.

“We have some of the highest child poverty rates in the country,” he said, adding that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, “and [a universal meal plan is] one of the things that would make a difference almost immediately within the system.”

Scaled-down Manitoba education reform plan leaves school boards in place

27 minutes ago

Duration 2:14

Manitoba is trying to reform public schooling for a second time. This after abandoning the unpopular Bill 64 last year, which would have abolished all English-language school boards. These new measures are not as controversial as what was proposed last year and some are pleased to see the new direction the province’s education reform plans are taking. 2:14

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