Eight steps toward solving school funding problems

By Ken Waddell
The Banner

For the past 40 years, Manitoba schools have been used and abused at will by governments and various interest groups.

Many well-intentioned causes have been funnelled through the schools to gain traction. The recycling movement, the anti-smoking movement and a whole rash of what might be dubbed “politically correct” causes have had their day in the classroom. Many continue to find time slots in the official or unofficial school agenda.

In addition to having to deal with every cause imaginable, teachers and the school system have had to absorb the strain of what used to be called main streaming. It has had a couple of newer fancier names since but basically main streaming means that every child, no matter how abled, either physically or mentally will graduate from Grade 12. The programs adapted so that every child will graduate with a High School diploma. What level of academic merit can be attached to some of those diplomas is open to question.

Canada’s cultural mosaic has been stretched by immigration to a point where a few years ago it was claimed that in schools at Surrey, BC, there were as many as 100 languages spoken in the hallways.

While that may have been an exaggeration, it’s not uncommon to have many different languages and cultural backgrounds in any given school.

All of the above add up to making teaching and administering a much tougher job than most people realize. Besides it’s easier to ignore realities and assume that whenever an issues comes up from sex education to anti-smoking to teaching any newest and greatest trend that “the schools will do it.”

Listen to any talk show radio program and it isn’t long before any problem is discussed that the solution is “more education.” By inference that means “the schools will do it.”
Considering all the pressures listed above plus the aging school infrastructure, higher salary costs and the higher cost of just about everything that schools have to purchase the recent announcement by Manitoba Education Minister Peter Bjornson was considered a cruel joke by school officials.

Bjornson said either school division hold the line on taxes or they won’t get any “extra” funding from the province.

Now that’s pretty arrogant but then Peter Bjornson, perhaps unjustifiably, always has come across as an arrogant minister. His latest move fits his presumed personality profile.

For Bjornson to tell school divisions what they must do is very arrogant. Although many will agree that school taxes seem to be too high, one would think that the local school board elections would address that topic. It isn’t that there’s a long parade of people lining up to be school trustees. It isn’t that there’s a huge tax revolt in Manitoba. Perhaps that’s because the current government has convinced everybody that there’s no use in fighting their mantle of mediocrity they have cast over us all. Or perhaps there’s simply no effective opposition.

There certainly hasn’t been any new ideas for a long time on education funding and administration. The last major effort was the Norrie Commission in the 1990s, a report commissioned by Gary Filmon’s PC Manitoba party on school boundary reviews. It was one of the best reports to ever come out of government but it was shelved. It must have made too much sense.

With the province’s latest move, it has pushed some groups to suggest that the school boards are irrelevant. In fact, some student groups are even suggesting that way too much is spent on administration.

Eight potential solutions are listed below:

1. Fund every student in Manitoba by issuing vouchers to parents or guardians so that students can attend the registered school of their choice, be it public or private as long as they are a registered school.

2. Disband school divisions and set up legislation for each individual school to elect a school board of 5-7 people depending on the size of the school. Let the board hire a principal and let the principal hire all the rest of the staff.

3. Set in place a plan to eliminate school taxes on residential and farm property.

4. Establish a small task force to study the feasibility and advisability of eliminating school taxes on commercial property. For examples, exempt commercial property if it is owned by a company that files its income taxes in Manitoba.

5. Work with the Manitoba Teachers’ Society on a method to measure academic achievement and excellence.

6. Encourage Universities and Community Colleges to establish or expand entrance exams.

7. Encourage schools to accept donations from individuals, from companies and foundations for capital improvements and for donations to school foundations where the interest on the foundation investment can be used for operating funds.

8. Negotiate with the federal government for funding transfers so that all First Nations schools come under provincial jurisdiction. Education is constitutionally a provincial responsibility and by and large First Nations Schools fall far behind provincial school standards. If First Nations people are to get a fair start and if First Nations people are going to be a large part of our work force, the schools on many reserves need to be seriously upgraded.

Not every one will agree with the above eight points but at least they are things we should be discussing. To have a good, honest and open discussion would be a lot better than having an arrogant sounding education minister drag out stale tax carrots and pretend to call it leadership. A good debate about where we want to be and where we should be with education would be healthy for Manitoba, for our students and our future.

Few politicians have the courage to take even attempt a debate or discussion. Fewer still will actually take a stand. Perhaps we can teach more about debating in our schools. Oh,sorry, I forgot, they are already overloaded.

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