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Manitoba government ran focus groups on planned education reform, documents show

Newly released documents show the Manitoba government was warned, through public-opinion research, that many people opposed its plan to overhaul the education system. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Recently-released documents show that just before the Manitoba government scrapped its education reform plans last year, it was told by a public opinion research company that people were leery of the proposals.

A report from Probe Research Inc. said people’s views were negatively affected by the government’s earlier changes in health care.

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“When participants were asked to express how assured they are that the provincial government (will) implement beneficial changes to education, their degree of confidence was relatively low — but not rock bottom,” says the report, completed last August and recently released on the government’s proactive disclosure website.

“Although changes the provincial government has made to health care, and its overall performance during the pandemic, negatively coloured their views of education reform, some participants have some degree of confidence in the government to make changes that will be beneficial for students, educators and Manitobans.”

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The report was based on focus group sessions Probe held on the province’s behalf about changes proposed under former premier Brian Pallister a year ago.

The proposals covered everything from student assessments to the curriculum, but a proposal to eliminate all elected English-language school boards and install a provincial education authority generated far and away the most public concern.

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Teachers and others in education denounced the plan. The teachers union and opposition parties distributed lawn signs against it.

Hundreds of people signed up to denounce the proposals at planned public hearings.

An earlier report from Probe in March 2021 involved focus groups consisting of parents only. They indicated there was little opposition to wiping out elected boards.

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“Parents were generally indifferent to — even frustrated by — school trustees and were not particularly concerned about the elimination of elected trustees,” the March report states.

But Probe found a different public opinion by the time of an August report.

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“For many participants, their views on these (proposed education) changes have been coloured by seeing … signs on lawns, or by comments made by educators they know,” that report says.

“Overall, participants hoped education modernization leads to more resources for Manitoba schools, with a focus on improving learning outcomes for marginalized and lower-income students.

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“At the same time, however, many participants were concerned a centralized education authority will not be attuned to local concerns, and that changes to education will actually lead to fewer resources in the classroom.”

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It was that same month that Heather Stefanson announced she was running for the Progressive Conservative leadership to replace Pallister, who was retiring.

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Stefanson, now premier, promised at her campaign launch to kill the bill that proposed the reforms. It was later withdrawn.

Last week, the government announced renewed plans for education reform, but without any changes to school boards.

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