Unions for Manitoba teachers and support staff say now is not the time for an education overhaul, after a throne speech that revived promises of sweeping change to a system unions say is already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Quite frankly, this adds a lot of stress and anxiety into the lives of of hardworking teachers,” said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.
The Progressive Conservative government’s throne speech Wednesday committed to unveil a new strategy to transform Manitoba’s education system and forge ahead with previously announced plans to phase out one of its revenue sources, the education property tax.
The long-awaited results of an already-completed review into Manitoba’s school system will be released in the “not-too-distant future” after being put on pause due to COVID-19, Premier Brian Pallister said.
Manitobans will be given a chance to provide feedback on the plan, which Pallister called “ambitious.”
“Apart from, perhaps … [Manitoba Premier] Duff Roblin’s initiatives back in the ’60s, this is the most ambitious undertaking in education improvement enhancement [at] the K-12 level that our province has ever seen,” he said.
But any report from before the pandemic is outdated, said the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents thousands of educational support staff workers in the province.
The union called the yet-to-be-released report “archaic” in a news release Wednesday and said the pre-pandemic plan should be scrapped.
As well, the plan to dismantle the education property tax will erode school divisions’ ability to serve their communities, CUPE says.
“The looming threat of education reform has already impacted morale among front-line workers and educators in the school system at a time when the focus should be entirely on supporting our kids,” said CUPE Manitoba president Abe Araya in the release.
Dramatic change since March: NDP
The throne speech was a missed opportunity for the government to commit to smaller class sizes and matching education funding to inflation and growing student bodies, Bedford said.
The province promised the new education plan will come with a guaranteed annual funding increase totalling more than $1.6 billion over the next four years — but Bedford said the impact of that funding won’t be clear until the province explains how it will be spent.
“As money is removed from education funding through the removal of local property taxes, is it then the intent — and hopefully it is the intent of government — to fill in that funding, so you don’t have to endure significant cuts to public education?” he said.
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the province’s plan to move forward with a review that dates back to before the COVID-19 pandemic “makes no sense whatsoever.”
“Go to any school and tell me that education has not changed dramatically since this March,” the Opposition leader said Wednesday.
He said the province’s No. 1 priority must be ensuring children whose schooling is affected by the pandemic are still getting what they need to live up to their full potential.
“Students are sacrificing a lot in Manitoba schools today,” he said. “And they deserved a lot better than just this dusty old education review that the government’s already had in their hands for months.”
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont also criticized the Progressive Conservative government’s throne speech as rehashing pre-pandemic commitments.
“This is really sort of just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” Lamont said.
Remote learning plan missing: MTS
The throne speech also committed to making remote-learning options work seamlessly for students “regardless of where they live.”
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society says that has to include plans to keep remote learning separate from teaching in classrooms.
“Our members can’t be asked to do two jobs at once,” Bedford said Wednesday.
“If there are students that need or want to learn remotely, that has to be a separate [job] from what’s going on in the classroom.”