Originally published 31/08/2018 in the Winnipeg Free Press. Witten by Professor John Wiens

An education review, properly done, would be a huge boon to the educational enterprise in Manitoba. Amalgamation, hastily done, using Shannon Sampert’s shaky rationale and premises (“It’s time to start talking about amalgamation,” Aug. 16), on the other hand, is premature and no substitute for a thoughtful, comprehensive review of education. It reflects a too-common penchant of both educators and others to think of a solution prior to defining the problem sufficiently, and to seek simple structural answers to conceptually complex enterprises such as democracy and education.

Sampert invokes words such as “modernize” and “progress” to support her case for amalgamation of school divisions, and arguments like “everybody is doing it” and “bigger is better.” Neither argument is very convincing, and neither is sensitive to educational demands.

“Education,” quoting one of the top political philosophers of the 20th century, Jean Bethke Elshtain, “is not about (building the best technology)… but about how people learn (and relearn) to live their lives every day.” In educational terms, this means “what do I need to know and do to be a better person, and how can I contribute to making the world a better place through what I have learned and how I act?”

In Canada, this educational question translates into, “How can I be a better person, neighbour, worker and citizen?” For a school system, this means “What do we wish to have our children know and do as a result of being in our schools?” As these are questions with strongly held, but often differing, answers, an education review would rightfully — prior to considering how we reorganize ourselves — provide opportunities and spaces to discuss our various answers.

Finally, like all human enterprises, education needs to be revisited and renewed often, and we have not had a thorough provincial discussion on education since the CORE report of the 1970s. As for amalgamation, the arguments provided are not convincing.

I would argue that there should always be many more trustees than MPs and MLAs. Education is, first and foremost, a homegrown, home-fed activity, and the closer to the action the people who run the systems are, the more likely they are to be sensitive to local and individual needs. This is an issue for democracy, as we now know that fewer and fewer people are increasingly making decisions further removed from the people who are affected by their decisions.

What’s more, trustees are really inexpensive for the work they do on our behalf, so numbers are not a major issue. As for people not knowing their names, there are disturbingly large numbers of people who also don’t know their MLAs, MPs or even their premier, so this is hardly a criterion for their elimination. On the other hand, when citizens do call on them, trustees are usually much more accessible.

Similarly, the misbehaviours of a board, or individuals on a board, are hardly good reasons to get rid of boards — if we used that argument, we would have few institutions left, public or private. And it might be noted that if we’re looking for unending conflict and dysfunction on a huge scale, we need look no further than all the large urban (amalgamated) school districts in Canada. We might very well ask a different question: “Have they become too big to be effective?”

As for funding and equity, there is nothing particular in today’s funding formula that mitigates against equity. It is not the formula, so much as the willingness to do minor revisions that would simplify and equalize the local contributions across the board. There is probably as much inequity within large divisions themselves as there is in the province as a whole. Politicians of all stripes simply have not been inclined to take equity seriously, and most attempts to do so have been overridden by wealthier parts of our cities.

Secondly, when it comes to amalgamation, if at all possible it should be voluntary. Our legacy of “forced amalgamations” has created still-unresolved resentments across Canada, resulting from a lack of attempts to be educationally rational and community sensitive. It’s hard to understand the “progress” that Sampert suggests in the last amalgamation, which created greater inequities and anomalies.

We would do well to learn from the Manitoba First Nations School System, which is a voluntary collaboration based upon educational hope and advantage, where people surrender aspects of local control for the benefit of their children and young people.

Relatedly, amalgamations have never “saved” money and there is no reason to believe that we have learned anything about efficiency from past amalgamations.

Finally, I can agree that some minimal amalgamation would be in order and, if done rationally, is likely to benefit students. Having said that, I do not agree that our students are performing miserably. The facts are that Manitoba students have consistently performed in the middle group on standardized tests.

While it has often been reported that they are “still dead last” in reading, science and mathematics, the truth is that many are doing much better and there is no statistically significant difference between Manitoba and several of those provinces just “above them” on the last report. We have also no reason to make hasty changes, as there is no evidence whatsoever that the last amalgamations improved standardized test scores, which themselves are a very crude measure of educational achievement.

The province is right to take its time to carefully think through the matter of an education review, and to not interrupt the trustee elections indiscriminately. I would only hope that they not put the proverbial “cart before the horse” by making drastic structural and financial changes before allowing citizens to have a say in what they want from their education system.

John Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education coordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.

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