When Michelle Jean-Paul checked Twitter Wednesday afternoon, she saw “a global sigh of relief.” The principal at Ecole Templeton scrolled through what her fellow educators had to say about the Manitoba government scrapping Bill 64.
“To be able to come into this year and know that COVID will still be a reality that we’ll have to deal with, but know that we’re also not looking at these drastic, immediate changes to the education system is something that I’m relieved by,” Jean-Paul said.
Bill 64 was a reform bill that proposed sweeping changes to the English education system in Manitoba. The legislation would dissolve school boards and centralize decision-making, relying heavily on parents and guardians to volunteer their time.
On Wednesday, interim Premier Kelvin Goertzen said Bill 64, along with four other pieces of legislation that were delayed by the Opposition NDP, will be abandoned when the legislature sits for a brief fall session.
Jean-Paul says she hopes this opens the door for real conversations on change in Manitoba’s education system, like lowering the child poverty rate and helping students access services that will help them thrive. Before Bill 64, the government conducted an extensive review of the K-12 system. Many of those who opposed the bill say it did not take into account what was said in the review.
“The language of equity wasn’t there,” said Jean-Paul. She said one of her biggest concerns was how much say parent councils would have over the hiring of teachers, and disciplining of students.
“I think a lot of educators still have a lot of learning to do about how our subconscious — and sometimes conscious — biases play a role in how we approach situations that arise in schools,” she said.
“So the concern was that people might be well invested, but don’t necessarily understand the nuances of the school system would all of a sudden have this power.”
Although the words from Goertzen are promising, Jean-Paul says things need to be finalized.
“I’m among those who will be relieved when the formalities of shelving that bill have actually gone through. I think words are lovely, but actions are always better.”
Rural Manitobans stood up to Bill 64
Several grassroots groups have vocalized their concerns since Bill 64 was first introduced. Now that it’s being withdrawn, some advocates say it’s proof citizens can make change.
In rural Manitoba, Wanda Sparkes worked with school divisions and parents to push against the bill. She gathered more than 300 signatures on a letter she sent to local Progressive Conservative MLA Derek Johnson, Manitoba’s minister of municipal relations.
Sparkes, a retired teacher in Arborg, Man., was particularly concerned about the bill’s proposal to remove a moratorium on closing rural schools, and no longer limiting the amount of time a student can spend on a school bus.
“There is declining enrolment in rural areas and that is a problem, but if small towns lose their school, they’re done,” said Sparkes, who referenced a school in Moosehorn, Man.
“Without that school, their Co-Op would close, the jobs would all leave. No one is going to come to a town where there’s no school for their kids.”
Bill opposition ‘a community effort’
One positive thing that’s come out of this experience, some say, is that Manitobans appear to be more politically engaged.
“It’s been a community effort,” said Chantal Shivanna Ramraj, a Grade 6/7 teacher in Winnipeg. Ramraj is part of Protect Ed MB, a group of parents and teachers who advocated against the bill since its inception.
“A lot of folks gave up our summer to do that, and now to have it withdrawn and to know that that work meant something, we want to encourage everyone who may have not felt engaged by political processes to know we can collectively use our voice,” Ramraj said.
Now, Ramraj says the challenge will be to watch what the government suggests next.
“We need to be paying attention very closely.”
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