The truth about the “crisis” in education
August 16, 2012
There has been a lot of talk in the media in the last week about discussions between the province, teachers and school boards. In some cases the information has been misleading.
Teachers’ contracts will expire on August 31st, but it is very common for bargaining to start in earnest only at the end of a contract. In these cases, everyone keeps working under the terms of the old contract, no one goes on strike, teachers (for the most part) do not get salary increases and students are not affected.
When the contracts expire, only newer teachers will receive automatic increases based on the salary grid. In Ontario, beginning teachers earn approximately $42,000 per year (compared to registered nurses or police constables who start at approximately $57,000 and $58,000 respectively) and get small increases each year for the first ten years. These teachers will continue to move “up the grid.”
Who’s the employer?
There has also been a lot of talk in the press about teachers deciding to bargain with school boards instead of the Ministry of Education. In fact, under Ontario Labour Law, school boards are teachers’ employers.
In the last few years, the Ministry of Education introduced a voluntary provincial discussion table, where the teachers’ federations and the school board associations worked with the Ministry to come up with a provincial framework for things like salaries, preparation time and supervision time (the time teachers must spend supervising students at lunch or recess). The provincial framework was helpful because it took care of many of the big picture items, it ensured that provincial funding matched employee contracts, and it made the bargaining process quicker.
But it is important to remember that the actual contracts are signed with the 72 individual school boards. And it is the job of school boards to make sure that their local agreements meet the educational needs of students and, in some cases, reflect the unique needs of the board.
What’s at stake financially?
The province has a problem – an approximately $15 billion annual deficit – and it wants to eliminate that deficit (and consequently its relatively low ratings from agencies like Standard and Poor’s) over the next five years. Freezing salaries for two years and mandating that teachers and school administrators take 3 unpaid days off will help eliminate some of the deficit in the short term.
But there is also a bookkeeping problem that makes it look as if Ontario’s deficit is higher than it really is. Some of the changes to teachers’ contracts proposed by the province would help with that.
School boards have on their books something called “unfunded liabilities.” These unfunded liabilities are included in the provincial deficit. Unfunded liabilities – in a nutshell – are the possible expenses you may have in the future, which must be listed on your books. They’re in essence a best guess at a potential payout that may have to be made in the future. But on your books, they show as a debt if you don’t have the money to pay for it right now. For example, every board has to have the money (on their books) to pay all the teachers in the board all their possible sick days all at once – that’s part of their unfunded liability. But it’s not like real debt, because it’s based on a future assumption, and in this case, a future assumption that is unlikely to occur.
Right now, teachers get 20 sick days per year in their contracts (on average, teachers actually take about 9 sick days a year). On the books, a board has to have money to pay for all 20 days – even though they’re rarely used. Changing the contracts so that teachers can only have 10 sick days instead of 20 will instantly eliminate (on the books) nearly $2 billion of the provincial deficit. Doing that, plus eliminating teachers’ right to “bank” a portion of their sick days, will remove approximately $2.7 billion from the books and thus from the deficit. It will fix a bookkeeping problem, but it will also have an impact on the very few teachers who need the greater number of sick days.
What’s at stake educationally?
Right now, because there is ostensibly no money to bargain with, the boards, the province and the teachers are left with non-financial issues to negotiate.
The province has proposed a change to the way that long term supply teachers are selected. Currently these teachers – who cover things like maternity leave and who often work in one school for many months – are chosen by principals. The province has proposed that these teachers should be chosen instead based on seniority. The province has also proposed that teachers should have more say over the diagnostic assessments students are given during the school year. These assessments, which are often prescribed at a board or school level, include things like individual reading evaluations in primary grades that can flag problems early on.
What is most important in balancing the various powers in education is that everyone remembers that it is the students who are the most important.
It is vital in education that every change that is made is made for the benefit of students.
The province has announced that they will impose a legislated contract on all school boards who have not settled their contracts by September 1st – one day after the old contracts expire. The Minister of Education, in her announcement did not say whether the legislation would apply to support staff as well, whose contracts also expire. No Ontario boards have reached settlements yet, so it looks as if, on September 1st, the provincial government will have to recall the legislature to impose the contracts. The Minister did say there would be further dialogue about some parts of the contract to do with long term supply teachers and diagnostic testing, ,but this dialogue would happen after the legislation is passed.
What happens now is hard to predict – teachers could take the province to court; some school boards could settle before the deadline; there could be lots more sabre rattling on all sides; and any one of the parties could go to the Ontario Labour Board.
People For Education Viewpoint:
Even though the fight has now escalated, it’s important to remember is that it is possible for all the parties to continue to wrangle without disturbing the work that goes on in schools every day. What’s also important is that all sides remember that unlike nearly any other kind of labour negotiation, children can be affected.
But what’s most important to remember is that Ontario has a very strong education system. The province, school boards and teachers have all worked hard for the last decade to improve it.
So let’s all continue to stay calm, enjoy the last days of summer and work as best we can to settle these differences.