Manitoba’s unseasonably warm weather may have melted snowdrifts, but there has been no such thaw in the austerity of our provincial government — at least not where public education funding is concerned. Recently, the province announced a scant half of one per cent "increase" in funding for the 2020-21 fiscal year, a number that falls below both the rates of inflation (two per cent) and student growth (one per cent).
No matter how you do the math, we’re losing ground. Fast.
One wonders: why the need to keep us in the cooler? The province’s finances have improved, and the auditor general has stated that the budget is already balanced. Federal transfer payments are set to increase once again, and the economic outlook for Manitoba remains strong.
Countless Manitoba teachers have told me how three years of austerity have affected their classrooms. I hear about larger class sizes and reduced numbers of educational assistants and clinicians to support our most vulnerable students. In addition, surveys of Manitoba Teachers’ Society members reveal an increased need for teachers to purchase food and supplies for students out of their own pockets — some spending as much as $1,000 a year. These same teachers are now into their second year of frozen salaries.
Those member survey results also peg job satisfaction for teachers at the lowest point ever recorded. No surprise, given that satisfaction from teaching is directly related to having the classroom resources needed to do the job. As those resources are eroded, so too is our ability to ensure that every student has a successful experience in school.
Manitoba’s public schools and its educators are doing more and more, because school trustees are listening to parents who expect more for their children. Or, put more succinctly, because Manitobans expect the best possible future for our youth and our province. Ultimately, our children will shoulder the burden of austerity in education funding, to the detriment of their futures — and ours, as well. We are what we learn.
This spring, we shall see the recommendations from the provincial government’s K-12 Education Review Commission, recommendations that may transform public education in Manitoba. The commission’s stated goal was to improve student learning, and I remain cautiously optimistic its findings will aim to strengthen classrooms for the benefit of all.
The question is, will the government see fit to fund those recommendations adequately?
Recently, Andy Hargreaves, a storied educator noted the world over for his work in support of excellent, equitable education, spoke to teachers at the invitation of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of education. He shared research into the effect of unaddressed poverty on test scores, social mobility and economic growth. He saw potential for Manitoba to improve on all counts, arguing eloquently for enhancing social and economic prospects with robust childhood education as the catalyst.
The return on this investment is astounding, he tells us, evidenced by greater social mobility, reduced crime, increased graduation rates and improved public health.
"All high-performing societies commit themselves to strong public investment in education," said Hargreaves. "Spin it any way you want — you cannot have high student performance without it."
Manitobans by the thousands attended the commission’s consultation meetings last year, speaking passionately to their desire for education that lays the groundwork for student success and a stronger Manitoba. The teachers society participated with them, recognizing the importance of dialogue that translates into positive change.
Now we await the report with hope, recognizing the opportunity before us to raise up our children and their families, to make profound, meaningful improvement that lasts lifetimes.
Let us reverse the funding shortfalls of the past three years. Let us seize the opportunity to set Manitoba on the path to improvement that public school, properly funded, is uniquely positioned to deliver.
I was brought up to invest for the future, and that’s what funding public education is all about.
James Bedford is president of The Manitoba Teachers’ Society