Ask teachers what they need in their classrooms and you’ll get a variety of answers. They will speak of basic necessities such as teaching supplies, crucial supports such as educational assistants and clinicians, and access to resources for their most vulnerable students.
Teachers will also tell you that they need coats, boots and tuques for students who can’t afford them, because too many of them can’t. They will also tell you that they need food for kids who "forgot" their lunch, again. And again.
Ultimately, teachers need classroom spaces that nurture informed, empathic, curious, creative children who grow into critical thinkers, inspired and equipped to build a better world. What teachers do not need in their classrooms is partisan politics. And yet, should Bill 64 pass this fall, political interference in the classroom is exactly what teachers are going to get.
Under the terms of Bill 64, the ironically named Education Modernization Act, duly and democratically elected school trustees will be replaced by a centralized board of political appointees. The party faithful will, in turn, drive decisions around what and how students learn, while parents will be saddled with fundamental decision-making related to teacher hiring and discipline, oversight of student assessment, valuation of "sensitive" content, and more. This work is best suited to teachers and principal teachers specially trained in education and school leadership.
This proposed upheaval plays out against the backdrop of insufficient education funding, a chronic, compounding cancer in Manitoba for five straight years. A number of Manitoba school divisions announced significant cuts to their budgets this spring, a direct result of government neglect. With so-called funding "increases" that keep pace with neither the rate of inflation nor enrolment growth, and now the added burden of a property tax freeze, it’s no wonder school divisions are compelled to cut valuable programs on the backs of kids and teachers.
Speaking to her division’s draft budget in March, Pembina Trails School Division board chair Kathleen McMillan put it succinctly: "There is no way we can avoid reductions in services to our students. With no taxation authority and insufficient funding from the province, we are left in an unfortunate position."
With a third wave of the pandemic upon us, this government places no priority on improving learning conditions for students. Instead, it cloaks its sordid intent to take control of classrooms in manufactured panic over standardized tests designed by for-profit corporations. And why not? The mania surrounding these fundamentally flawed and demonstrably debunked assessments conveniently obscures the real and growing challenges facing classrooms today.
Simply put, this government has created a crisis to distract from its unconscionable abandonment of education. And as important programming is sacrificed on the altar of austerity and one-size-fits-all testing, teachers quickly become a target — those very same teachers the premier and his education ministers have praised so well for their commitment and sacrifice in the face of a global crisis.
I’ll give the government this: it’s a clever gambit. And unless Manitobans raise their voices in opposition to Bill 64, it just might work. We need look no further than the United States, roiled, angry and broken, to see the impact of an education system eroded by underfunding so subtly and for so long that no one notices until the damage is catastrophic.
A vibrant, responsive public education system is a right, not a privilege. It is an equalizer, a healer, a crucible of critical thought and the anchor of a just society. Manitoba Teachers’ Society members are mobilizing in its defence, and we will not back down.
Our province’s teachers need many things in their classrooms, but partisan politics isn’t one of them. I implore all Manitobans to join teachers in vehemently opposing Bill 64.
We cannot be silent. There is too much at stake.
James Bedford is president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.