EDUCATION Minister Clifford Cullen recently unveiled a plan to move Manitoba to a highly centralized governance education system. School boards will cease to exist. Public school budgets will be set and funded, virtually exclusively, by the provincial government.
We argue this new regime of education funding and governance raises some serious questions.
Question 1: What does the interprovincial comparison of per-student expenditure tell us?
The Manitoba government is concerned about provincial per-student funding being some of the highest in Canada. The Fraser Institute data on this indeed shows that our per-pupil expenditure on public schooling for 2017-18 of $14,815 makes Manitoba the third-highest spending province after Saskatchewan ($16,038) and New Brunswick ($15,000).
Such a comparison does not necessarily mean that our provincial system is less efficient or that funds are not being spent wisely. These differences reflect multiple factors, such as the costs required to provide quality schooling in our province compared to other provinces.
Interprovincial comparisons have their place, but they need to be made carefully. Single, overall measures, whether they be per-pupil expenditures or scores on international reading, math and science, tell us very little. Also, let’s not forget that a well-funded public school system staffed by well-paid teachers is something to be proud of.
Question 2: Does the new funding approach provide for a more equitable source of funding for public schooling?
Full provincial funding does remove a funding inequity that currently exists. Different school divisions have different total assessed property values, allowing wealthier school divisions to more easily raise revenue through property taxes than poorer divisions. However, this inequity could have been addressed in several other ways.
In 2017-18, the provincial share of operating costs for public schooling was 60.9 per cent, with almost all of the rest coming from local property taxes. If this 60/40 ratio was shifted to be closer to 80/20, as has been advocated in the past — an aim of the previous NDP government at one point — then this inequity would be reduced.
A strengthening of existing provincial equalization payments would also enable the elimination of this problem, without dismantling school boards or stripping them of all taxing authority.
Placing all funding decisions in the hands of a centrally appointed Provincial Education Council approved by the minister will limit funding equity. Regional budgets are still likely to be determined by a combination of block grants (per-pupil funding) and categorical grants (specific student and program needs). Their fairness and equity in meeting the needs of students in the different local contexts will remain a challenge.
Equally importantly, other provinces where school boards lost their power to raise local taxes to fund education, such as Ontario, have seen a drastic increase in individual schools fundraising to meet their students’ needs. This school-based fundraising solution has led to sharpened inequities between schools because some schools enrol students from wealthier family backgrounds compared to other schools.
Question 3: Does the new centralized structure provide "better value for money"?
The government tells us the new centralized structure improves efficiency, standardization and system alignment. However, their view is built on severe assumptions. They assume we have a clear, unambiguous notion of the goals of education and schools. They also assume we have an equally clear understanding of how to accomplish that education to all students across the province. We don’t and, to an extent, we shouldn’t.
Public education in a modern democracy needs public participation in an ongoing discussion about purposes, and how to fund for quality education. Such discussion needs a broadly based, evidence-informed "deep learning" between educators and community members. Removing school boards and school trustees is likely to significantly weaken the quality of these education discussions. Equity without citizen participation is a shallow concept in a democratic society.
As this legislation gets implemented, more questions remain: where will the minister and the Provincial Education Council turn to for its expertise? Why can’t we build a strong, collaborative system of local and provincial research that draws on expertise from Manitoba School Board Association, Manitoba Teachers’ Society and universities in order to improve our education policies and practice?
Ee-Seul Yoon is an associate professor and Jon Young is professor emeritus in the department of educational administration, foundations and psychology, in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba.