Outcry over Manitoba’s education reform hangs on misinformation, minister says

Manitoba’s education minister lobbed accusations on Monday that the vocal opposition against the province’s sweeping school reforms are misled, as the outcry over the proposed overhaul shows no signs of letting up. 

Cliff Cullen held a news conference where he argued in favour of Manitoba’s planned transformation of the kindergarten to Grade 12 system. The plan, which will dissolve English-language school boards and centralize decision-making with government, was unveiled in March.

He alleged the detractors of Bill 64 and the province’s Better Education Starts Today strategy have been “intentionally misled” through a “misinformation campaign” led by the NDP, Manitoba School Boards Association and the leadership of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. 

“Unfortunately, the purpose of their campaign is to instil fear and anxiety in parents and educators,” Cullen said.

He released a “fact versus fiction” page online because, he alleged, there is ample misinformation around the government’s intentions.

The document states no schools will be closed, no schools will be penalized for poor assessment results and parents won’t have to worry about individual schools losing their unique programming. 

Critics should have the facts: Cullen

Cullen said the province must improve an education system that has produced test scores near the bottom in Canada in math, science and literacy. The status quo isn’t good enough, he said.

“I understand people will disagree [with the reforms], but we want to make sure they’re making their decisions based on facts,” he said. 

Contrary to the minister’s statements, opponents say Manitobans already understand the sweeping reforms planned, and they don’t like them.

“Look, the government needs to accept the fact that they’ve blown it on this bill,” said Manitoba Liberal Party Leader Dougald Lamont.

“The lack of respect that this government is showing to the people who are critics, by just dismissing them, insulting them by calling them liars, or just branding them as political opponents, is shameful.” 

A groundswell of opposition has emerged against the education overhaul in recent months. Lawn signs have sprouted up in the thousands, while urban and rural school divisions have independently held town halls to denounce the government’s actions.

Opposition to Bill 64 is showing up in the form of lawn signs, like this one put out by the Manitoba NDP. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

More than 400 people have registered to speak on the bill at committee hearings this fall, which is set to be the highest number of registrants on any legislation since 2008 when the former NDP government sought to impose a moratorium on building new hog barns. The province said 424 people registered to speak before those meetings occurred.

Historically, most of the people who speak at committee are against legislation.

The education minister previously said the resistance to Bill 64 is a “vocal minority,” yet when asked twice Monday to name a single association that supports the government’s reforms, Cullen didn’t answer the question. Instead, he said a “number of individuals” have spoken highly about the plan.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the Progressive Conservative government is feeling the heat over its controversial reforms.

“It seems as though the minister came out today to respond because they’re feeling pressure, but the way they responded, it doesn’t do justice to the real and legitimate concerns that people have about Bill 64 and the damage that it’s going to do to schools in Manitoba,” he said.

“There’s a lot of people who spend a lot of time looking into the bill, educating themselves about it, and for the minister to come out and try and attack those folks or to undermine the work that they’ve put in to understanding the issue — to me, it does a disservice.”

The province says any reforms to the public school system won’t disrupt classroom activities. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Manitoba Teachers’ Society president James Bedford said the province is making its case through the media instead of trying to hash out issues together. Despite his requests, Bedford said he hasn’t met with Cullen since January, shortly after the Spruce Woods MLA was named education minister.

For the last several weeks, Cullen has been meeting virtually with teachers from individual schools, according to his Twitter account. 

No layoffs necessary, minister says

Meanwhile, Cullen told reporters Monday that any school divisions suggesting they need to lay off staff because they don’t have enough money should call his office to discuss other options.

Winnipeg School Division has previously said it must cut between 110 and 120 teaching positions because staff earned wage increases under a new collective bargaining agreement. Provincial funding for WSD dropped by $5 million in the last school year, the division has said.

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