A more effective school funding solution

By Lorne Weiss

Education is one of our government’s most important obligations, and one of its largest financial expenditures; the provincial government spends about $2.4 billion annually on our public education system. However, how we fund our education system in Manitoba is needlessly complex, opaque and unfair. Despite consistently being a province that spends more per student than most other provinces, our students consistently rank at, or near the bottom, on comparative testing compared to students from other provinces.

Fortunately, the provincial government is reviewing Manitoba’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 education system. The Manitoba Real Estate Association has been actively involved regarding education funding for years. One primary reason behind our involvement in this issue is how we see the impact of higher property taxes on property owners due to our over-reliance on school board taxation of property to pay for delivery of education in Manitoba. Moreover, it is not fair and equitable with different mill rates being set by school boards. Over the years we have collaborated with several groups such as WinnipegREALTORS®, and the Manitoba and Winnipeg Chambers of Commerce to advance the idea of reforming our education funding system.

At its core, the funding model needs to provide enough revenue to support our education and training system. It is in everyone’s best interest to have a high-performance education system, so our children and the generations to follow can develop to their full potential and contribute to the growth of our province. To meet that goal, we need to be cognizant of how those revenues are raised.

Manitoba is unique in how the education system is funded, and not in a good way either.

We are the only province where school boards can independently set their own property tax mill rates. And with 36 school divisions, you end up with our current hodgepodge system with multiple mill rates. This lack of consistency can result in neighbours who live across the street from one another with the same value home paying different education taxes on their property tax bill.

This inequality is unique in the tax system. For example, people pay the same income and sales tax rates regardless of where they live in the province, but they pay different education property tax amounts. Manitobans expect that every child should have an equal opportunity to learn and succeed, and expect fair and equitable treatment of residents wherever they live. Different regions should not be punished with high property tax levies simply because they are remote or lack the same property tax base as another region. 

Our current taxation model also creates a system which supports taxation without representation; as a property owner can only vote for school trustees in the division where their principal residence is. If you own a cottage, you can’t vote for the school trustee who will be the one to decide how much you pay in the education portion of your property tax. In some school divisions the education portion can be as high as 80% of the property tax bill.

Our neighbours next door in Saskatchewan recently made these reforms, so why can’t we in Manitoba? In 2009 Saskatchewan took away the ability for school boards to set the mill rate, and since have established centralized standard mill rates across property types. Homeowners in Regina and Saskatoon now have the exact same mill rate, where in Manitoba you have neighbours being taxed with different mill rates.

Such a change will impact all school divisions. Moving to a single mill rate could negatively impact the revenue of some school divisions, while it could increase revenue for others. Transitional measures could be put into place initially to help school divisions adjust.

Reforms of this size will not be easy. It will require everyone working together and putting aside their parochial interests to focus on the needs of our children and ensuring that our education system allows them to reach their full potential.

Such a large-scale change doesn’t have to happen overnight, but change must happen. We must ask, does an education funding model from the days of pre-colour TV’s really work in the 21st century?

Other provinces have reformed their school funding systems, and we owe it to our children to go back to the drawing board here in Manitoba. Because at the end of the day, a better funding model can support what we all want and should be striving for, a world-class education system that provides our children with the most opportunities.

Lorne Weiss is the Chair of the Manitoba Real Estate Association’s Political Action Committee.