Austerity hurts public education

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press September 9, 2023

By Ee-Seul Yoon

As educators and children are heading back to the classroom next week, it’s worth reviewing what they’re returning to after seven years of funding shortfalls and cuts. Teachers are doing their best with the resources they have, but it’s not enough.

What happens to a public school system when top-down funding cuts are imposed with little to no consultation or assessment of the ongoing needs of the system? No one wins.

Children in Manitoba are crammed into crowded classrooms and Manitoba workers in the public education sector are burnt out and overworked. After experiencing several years of frozen funding, rising costs and layoffs by the provincial government, educators and front line workers in the province’s public education sector say that the top-down austerity policy has weakened the entire public education system to the point of the system failing our most vulnerable students.

According to the more than 100 educators and front line workers in the public education sector who responded to a survey as part of the Public Service in Tough Times: Working Under Austerity in Manitoba project, the Manitoba government’s education finance policy has been blind to the needs and challenges of learners and educators in this province.

It would be negligent not to listen to these respondents, who have insider experiences and perspectives of working, teaching and leading in our schools. They have worked directly with students and have seen first-hand those who are most negatively affected by the reductions in resources and programming.

Most notable are staffing shortages due to the cuts required as costs have risen while funding was frozen when the current government came to power in 2016. Fewer staff members mean increased workloads. Three out of four respondents said their workload has increased considerably. Nine out of 10 mentioned that their mental health and job satisfaction have plummeted. They have experienced a high level of burnout and dissatisfaction because they are asked to fill in multiple roles beyond their main areas of responsibility, including, but not limited to, the roles of mental health experts, special needs specialists, speech language pathologists, coaches, care providers and so on. Being asked to multi-task and being overstretched and overworked have resulted in an unnecessarily stressful work environment, not to mention reduced supports for students.

Fewer staff also means larger class sizes, while funding constraints have undermined the conditions for learning and teaching overall. Recall that the current government scrapped the K-3 class size cap. Larger class sizes have led to situations in which students’ emotional and mental health needs are difficult to address in a timely and adequate way. Larger class sizes mean kids get less attention from their teachers to their academic needs. Smaller class sizes increase engagement and lead to higher academic and non-academic outcomes, especially among early year students and students who experience poverty and social disadvantage.

Four out of five respondents noted that the quality of education they can provide has severely declined, resulting in some educators feeling frustrated while others feel guilty, as though they are the ones failing students, even though this is due to funding shortfalls that are beyond their control.

The negative effects of austerity are most acute among children who are vulnerable economically. Three out of five respondents said that there is less support for students who are economically insecure, including cuts to breakfast programs and family outreach programs that have been cancelled.

Half of the respondents noted a worsening sense of safety as a result of an increase in violent incidents and a reduced level of threat assessments in schools. They also noted fewer resources for mental health, well-being programs and police and child abuse checks as well as cuts to social work staff. Reduced spending on public and community safety has decreased a sense of safety in school communities.

As far as the cost-saving of austerity is concerned, an overwhelming majority of educators said: No. Cuts to effective programs such as early intervention in learning and academic support will have much larger costs to taxpayers in the long run, as schools are currently unable to help children and youth build the capacity to become responsible and independent adults. They argue that the level of need across all public sectors, including health and social programs, will rise in the long run.

There is no magic bullet to reforming the education system. The correct path, though, is one that respects and includes the voices of educators, leaders and workers in the public education sector and one that has the best interests of Manitoba’s children at its core.

Ee-Seul Yoon is an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba and a research affiliate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba.