Ontario can’t afford to capitulate (further) to teachers’ unions

jasmine pickel

Let’s start with an obvious premise: it’s possible to both value and respect teachers while simultaneously questioning the viability of their unions’ demands.

Indeed, it would be irresponsible for any society that values the public education system not to question how money is being spent therein to maximize value.

So let’s consider one of the unions’ demands: bigger raises.

For background, the Ontario government has offered a raise of three per cent over the next three years. Teachers’ unions have stated their offence at the offer, and have threatened both legal and strike action to get what they want.

Teachers’ unions have claimed that a three per cent raise over the next three years is a de facto pay cut because inflation could go up faster than their salaries.

While it’s technically true that inflation might rise faster than their salaries, their conclusion that every teacher needs a bigger raise ignores a very fundamental point: they’re already very well compensated.

The average Canadian secondary teacher earns 35 per cent more than the OECD average, and primary teachers 47 per cent more at the 15 year mark. They are the fifth and third highest paid teachers in the OECD, respectively.

Ontario teachers are amongst the best paid in this country. The average salary of Ontario teachers is more than $86,000 per year. Adding the value of pensions and benefits to salaries, top earning Ontario teachers enjoy a total compensation of more than $120,000 per year.

The province’s sunshine list contains the names of more than 10,000 teachers who earn more than $100,000 per year. The government’s current offer would give each of those teachers at least a $3,000 raise over three years, but their union bosses think anything less than $6,000 is unfair.

It’s no wonder that in 2013, the Ontario Liberal government had to intervene to stop the hordes of students flocking to teachers college as if it were the Yukon in the peak of the gold rush. At the time, there was a lineup of over 30,000 qualified teachers hoping to uncover just one glistening interview.

Successive governments of all political stripes in Ontario have continued to sweeten the deal, capitulating to union demands at great cost to taxpayers.

Premier Doug Ford who was elected with a majority mandate to fix the province’s finances has increased education spending by $1.3 billion beyond what former premier Kathleen Wynne spent. He even created a Teachers Job Protection Fund so that no teachers would lose their jobs as a result of increased class sizes.

But even that commitment is more about generosity than necessity.

A freedom of information request revealed that over a span of 15 years, student enrollment in Ontario’s public schools decreased by nearly 16,000, while the number of full-time teachers increased by more than 10,000.

Although Ford’s decision to eliminate 10,000 teaching jobs through attrition in the next five years attracted ire from union bosses, they continued on their quest for bigger raises. This shows very little understanding of or appreciation for the trade-off at hand: the more we pay teachers, the fewer we can afford to hire. It’s basic math.

For example, the total cost of salaries for the 10,000 teachers on the sunshine list would be more than enough to cover the salaries of 20,000 new entry level teachers. But union bosses would never suggest we lower the top teacher compensation levels of more than $120,000 per year in order to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes. They want bigger raises, regardless of financial realities.

Increasing taxes to pay for the teachers’ raises isn’t an option and going further into debt would be irresponsible. Ontario is already the largest subnational debtor on the planet and we’ll waste around $13 billion on interest payments this year alone.

The more we pay teachers, the bigger class sizes will be. Unions won’t acknowledge this trade-off, so let’s hope taxpayers will.

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