Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has faced repeated criticism for its pursuit of austerity as a means to prevent serious damage to the health of the provincial treasury.
Flying in the face of most experts—and even many conservatives—who have stressed the need for increased government intervention to protect jobs and support vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic, premier Brian Pallister has moved swiftly in the opposite direction.
Despite introducing some tax and payment deferrals aimed at low-income Manitobans, as well as a one-time refundable tax credit in the form of a mailed cheque for $200 to seniors, the PC’s austerity measures have been widely and resoundly panned.
The economic jolt of a market or budget crisis, mixed with a panicked and anxious population, has historically been grounds for a great remaking of economies in the free market mold. Unmoored from the typical guiding principles of acceptable governance, the economic and political strategy of ‘shock therapy’—famously described in Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine—has been used to exploit “the public’s disorientation following a collective shock–wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters–to push through radical pro-corporate measures”.
Moreover, the ability to sell citizens on the need for rollbacks to public spending is enhanced during a crisis.
It is cause for concern, then, that Manitoba’s Education Minister, Kelvin Goertzen, recently participated in panel discussions alongside two prominent opponents of public schooling in the United States, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, to discuss “promoting choice within education.”
On April 24, Goertzen joined DeVos as a panel member during a YouTube webinar hosted by the Global Home Education Exchange (GHEX), an international non-governmental organization that advocates for homeschooling.
More recently, on May 27, Goertzen was part of another online panel discussion hosted by the GHEX, which invited policy makers including Cruz to explore the “role home education might play in helping the world continue providing educational opportunities for everyone during and after the pandemic.”
Cruz and DeVos have worked together on a bill to provide billions of dollars in tax breaks for individuals and companies that donate to private school scholarship funds or help parents homeschool their children. Cruz called the legislation the “most significant federal civil rights victory of modern times.”
Also on May 27, Manitoba Liberal Party leader Dougald Lamont tweeted images from Goertzen’s Facebook page, showing the minister participating on both calls.
(2/3) Education Minister Goertzen has also been teleconferencing with Betsy DeVos and Ted Cruz, two of the biggest advocates of dismantling and defunding public schools, with disastrous consequences. Why is Manitoba taking cues on education from far-right U.S. Republicans? pic.twitter.com/clRmcjioCg— Dougald Lamont (@DFLamont) May 27, 2020
While his attendance alone doesn’t say much, Goertzen’s enthusiasm about “promoting choice” within the school system alongside two far-right Republican figures should worry defenders of public education, while signalling the potential for a radical restructuring of Manitoba’s education system on the other end of this pandemic.
What’s more, Goertzen’s appearance on a webinar hosted by a homeschooling advocacy organization should raise eyebrows. Proponents of homeschooling are often hostile to the socializing effects of the public school system, and were some of the first to greet the news of the pandemic as an opportunity to promote their cause. Organizations like GHEX display a tendency to celebrate the market narrative and individual consumer choice at the heart of the private provision of education. In the words of Jeff Bryant, writing at Salon:
[Homeschooling] isolates children from a broad spectrum of ideas, whether that urge is driven by a conservative persuasion to resist exposing their children to evolution or world languages or a liberal resistance to the regimentation that often characterizes public schools… homeschool advocates, and other proponents of public school privatization, who cheerlead for their cause while tragedy unfolds resemble vulture capitalists that have taken advantage of other catastrophes.
The Republican right’s assault on public education
Betsy DeVos is the current Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration. Her billionaire family have for years promoted right-wing causes and candidates, including making $950,000 in donations to Republican Party super PACs since 1980.
DeVos is an outspoken proponent of market-based education reform who has never attended nor worked for a public school. For several years she served as the chair of the American Federation for Children, a lobbying and advocacy group that supports state-level candidates for elected office, particularly those who support charter schools, a type of taxpayer-funded, for-profit institution that operates independently of the state school system in which it is located.
Her efforts to enact an education privatization agenda including programs to give parents vouchers to use at private and charter schools have, for the last several years, been stymied by Congress. The coronavirus crisis, however, has provided a lifeline to the private institutions she has long championed. On April 10, DeVos appeared on Glenn Beck’s news talk and political opinion show, and said the pandemic provides an opportunity to “rethink education… [because] K-12 education has been very static and stuck in one method.”
Just this week, DeVos pushed ahead with a policy that will divert tens of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief to private primary schools and secondary schools across the US. The Trump administration’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (also known as the CARES Act) allocated $30 billion for education relief and for public school districts facing severe budget shortfalls. DeVos’s measures would reallocate $500 million of those funds towards private schools, even forcing poor districts starved of federal revenues to support the wealthiest institutions in the country.
According to the New York Times, “DeVos has long held that taxpayer funds should be available for private school tuition, giving parents the chance to escape failing public schools and public education competition to drive improvement.”
These developments come only a few months after DeVos and Cruz pushed for Trump to include mention of their “Education Freedom” plan in the president’s State of the Union address on February 4. The aforementioned legislation would introduce a tax credit scholarship plan, whereby corporations and individuals can forego taxes by giving money to private organizations that deliver scholarships to students. This money, according to Forbes, could be used for “transportation, remedial programs, homeschooling materials, or, most commonly, private school tuition.” If enacted, the legislation would result in a gaping hole in government coffers, estimated at $5 billion in lost revenue that could be used to prevent families from having to “escape terrible schools” in the first place.
In states that use these types of scholarship programs (also referred to as vouchers), the institutions that receive the funds are overwhelmingly religious private schools.
What’s next for Manitoba?
The ideological approach to education reform promoted by DeVos and Cruz echoes Manitoba’s creation of a commission in 2019 to review the provincial school system and propose a “renewed vision for kindergarten to Grade 12 education,” and “ignite change” to existing systems and programs.
Commenting on the extent of the reforms, Goertzen told the CBC “nothing is off the table”, and floated the possibility of cutting back the number of school boards and trustees, and phasing out education property taxes once the provincial budget is balanced.
To help implement the changes, Goertzen recruited Avis Glaze, an education consultant who in 2018 was paid $75,000 to write a report for the government of Nova Scotia recommending sweeping changes including the elimination of elected school boards to save on administrative costs. A day after the release of Glaze’s report, titled “Raise the Bar”, the province’s department of education accepted “the spirit and intent of the recommendations”, despite being universally panned by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) and opposition parties.
Among the other changes recommended by Glaze included replacing elected English-language school boards with a 15-member advisory council, exempting school principals and vice-principals from union membership, and establishing a licensing body with the power to discipline problem teachers. NSTU president Paul Wozney questioned the decision to replace elected school boards with provincially-appointed bodies, and warned against creating gaps in regional representation and regional input which could harm the decision-making framework of public education in the province.
Goertzen’s commission was slated to table its report this March, but COVID-19 put a halt to those plans. Still, many Manitobans remain anxious about the potential extent of changes to the public education system by an austerity-minded government which has already demonstrated its willingness to impose harsh measures to reign in spending.
According to Erika Shaker of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, despite there being precedent for the consolidation of school boards and the elimination of trusteeships, such reforms do away with important democratic levers within the school system:
I’ve yet to find a governing body that improved its citizen outreach and feedback methods by eliminating the democratic component altogether. And when it comes to the education, care and wellbeing of our kids, and helping them learn the skills they need to not just fit into the world but to change it for the better, citizen and community engagement, communication and outreach is fundamental. This is what local school boards are designed and best positioned to do.
Ensuring that public schools are accountable to the kids they teach and the communities in which they’re located, and that the schools have the human and financial resources required to fulfil that task without having to spend time and energy on fundraising campaigns, must absolutely be a priority. But let’s not be distracted by policies imported from other jurisdictions that seem more about fomenting distrust and disengagement and a justification for pulling resources out of the system.
Privatization is often framed as a tactic for promoting choice and accountability in public services. Its most vocal advocates claim it expands the range of choice for individuals while serving the same functions as government-funded programs. Yet privatization also represents the retreat of the state from vital areas of social provision. That vacuum is typically filled by unaccountable, profit-seeking entities that diminish our collective power to control key aspects of our economy, and our lives.
While it is too early to assess with any certainty the direction Manitoba’s government will go with its reforms, progressives should push back against plans to cut education spending or weaken the democratic and representational vitality of the public school system.
What is certain is that reactionary figures like DeVos and Cruz, politicians who openly foment distrust and disengagement with public institutions, should not be counted among Minister Goertzen’s fellow travellers.
Harrison Samphir is an editor, writer and policy analyst based in Toronto. His work has appeared in CBC, Jacobin, NOW Magazine, Huffington Post, rabble.ca, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. In 2016, he completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Harrison has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.