Bill 64 Smashing K-12 education eggs

By John Wiens

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press May 25, 2021

“You can’t break eggs without making an omelette —That’s what they tell the eggs,” writer/editor Randall Jarrell mused in his poem A War. Political scientist Hannah Arendt,  meanwhile, in The Eggs Speak Up (from Essays in Understanding), says, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” suggests that authoritarian governments practise breaking eggs promising that an omelette will result simply by virtue of egg-breaking.

How aptly this understanding describes the creators of Bill 64, and the actions of its proponents.

If you make up a false story of disparagement, fault and blame and promise that you will create an “omelette” simply because you smashed those “eggs” beyond recognition, you can be sure that the end of the carnage is “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

Bill 64 smashes democracy (elected school boards), knowledgeable and experienced educational leadership (superintendents), professional collegiality (principal-teacher relationships), and parental supports (parent-school trust). In the process, it breaks public schools as we know them.

Thirty-seven school boards are replaced by two provincial advisory boards appointed by the government — 37 elected corporate bodies responsible to local communities replaced by two corporate bodies answerable to the premier. Thirty-seven superintendents, local employees with educational credentials and vast experience in the system, are replaced by 15 government appointees who need not have either educational credentials or experience.

Principals, who now become solitary civil servants arbitrarily removed from their professional organization, are assigned the role of plant supervisors over teachers, who are also relegated to civil-servant status as employees of people they will never meet.

Teachers are subject to oversight by individual parents who have authority to weigh in on their hiring, their discipline, their curricular responses, their teaching strategies and their dismissal. Parents are again encouraged to form school advisory councils with ostensibly increased powers, basically left to their own devices while charged with ensuring all children’s school success in addition to that of their own children.

And children are to be judged on their performance on tests produced by distant international corporations, with their schools’ reputations on the line depending on how they perform collectively, and their own achievements determined not on their individuality but on their comparison to others with vastly different personal circumstances.

Together, they create not a palatable omelette, but eggs so scrambled as to not be recognizable as once being eggs. Gone is a public school system, governed by the public for the sake of the public, preparing children to take their place in the public to continuously renew the public realm through democratic participation.

Other provinces have introduced or attempted virtually the same experiments, some already abandoning them as not working and contradictory to democratic values. Nova Scotia, after a short period without, has reintroduced elected school boards, recognizing that a centralized government could not provide the same level of responsiveness and accountability as locally elected trustees. Quebec, after consideration, rejected the elimination of school boards.

Alberta and Saskatchewan kept their school boards and took away their power to tax, but are seriously considering reinstating some means by which boards can raise finances more locally for local initiatives.

British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia principals tell horror stories about losing their jobs based upon singular complaints or changes in their directors, and about being constrained by instructions from above and obstructions from below, feeling disconnected from children’s education and making it impossible to be educational leaders in their schools.

In all heavily centralized authoritarian systems, teachers report not having anyone to turn to if they need assistance or support, unable to access unresponsive and indifferent centralized bureaucracies. Parents complain about the same, basically having no one to turn to under inflexible, but required, official procedures and lengthy communication hierarchies.

Perhaps the greatest casualties of Bill 64 are truth and trust. Even during the K-12 Education Review, goodwill and mutuality prevailed. If passed, Bill 64, based as it is on false premises and divisiveness, will result in predictable and endless contention with no positive end in sight. A common world sustained by a public education for all children will be simply a faraway illusion.

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