Fixing Teacher Salaries

There are few professions with a reputation among members of the public so conflicted as teaching. On the one hand, most people do acknowledge that teaching is a noble job – often one, as I’ve written before, that has a certain charity feel to it (“Oh, you teach? Good for you!”) But on the other hand, few professionals are so widely regarded as being lazy and overpaid as teachers are. The issue normally lies dormant, but in an era of budget pressures the slings and arrows are readied once again.

The Ontario government, ignoring some of the advice of their advisor, Don Drummond, has made some strong early moves to curb spending. Since education spending is its second-largest program commitment, keeping the budget growth to 1% cannot be successful if previous trends were allowed to continue.

Two measures have been proposed, both of which seem to be counter to long-standing agreements and labour conventions: cancel retirement gratuities and “fix” the salary grid. The first refers to agreements that provide a lump-sum payment, reported as about half the final year of salary, for teachers who have banked most of their sick days throughout their career. Presumably, the measure was created to reward teachers who saved the system money by forfeiting their negotiated sick days. To cancel this for anyone who is anywhere near retirement obviously runs counter to collective agreements won over the years.

The second idea is to “fix” the salary grid. As I’ve written before, merely freezing new cost-of-living raises doesn’t achieve much, because yearly raises for years of experience are much higher than 1%. And Laurel Broten, education minister, has pushed for a two-year freeze of the grid, and moreover, a complete rethink of teacher salaries once that two years is up. What might that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean more money for teachers. Might it mean salary cuts? Almost certainly that’s the motivation. Might it mean some sort of new grid entirely, which lowers the majority of salaries in order to create new levels, in the name of ‘pursuing excellence,’ or some such – ie, a new level for graduate degrees, while all others get a 10% pay cut? Might it mean some version of merit pay, an idea that has been argued against by the former Deputy Minister of Education for Ontario? All these are possible, but the Minister isn’t saying much right now. (And the language of the debate – to fix what is broken – is appallingly conservative for a government that fashioned itself the carrier of the progressive banner.)

According to the Globe and Mail:

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation both reacted with outrage. In a scathing letter to his members, ETFO president Sam Hammond called the tone of the proposal “mean-spirited” and wrote, “To say we were insulted is an understatement.” The ETFO has also pulled out of two days of talks scheduled for next week.

The union is right to fight for the retirement gratuity if they are to represent the wishes of their membership, which happens to be fairly mature. But from a public policy standpoint, it is a relatively small measure: the entire obligation, province-wide, over what appears to be a generation for teachers, is $1.7 billion. To increase the gap in salary, not a bonus earned over 30 years, between teaching and the other professions is obviously short-sighted. And if you are a younger teacher, the freeze in wage growth is far more troubling – older teachers are already at the top of the grid, so it hurts them much, much less.

There is a lot to like about most of Drummond’s recommendations – again, in the broad sense. And of course this wasn’t the suggestion Drummond made – he was in favour of saving money through larger class sizes in the primary years, and the reversal of the hard cap by McGuinty’s government, since so very little evidence exists in its favour. And a delayed roll-out in the very expensive full-day kindergarten that, again, was an election showpiece.

But it is preposterous to suggest that in an era of inflation over 2%, and average salary increases across this country of 3.1% (according to the Conference Board of Canada), to freeze, then cut, teacher salaries, without expecting any concomitant long-term repercussions in the quality of education. If education is important, we needed the best and the brightest to enter the field. It isn’t enough to echo the old refrain, “No one becomes a teacher for the money.” (Or if the refrain holds true, it should hold true in all professions – a return to higher personal income tax rates on high earners should demonstrate that. The government would have all the money it needs with a high income surtax).

Teachers need to be paid at a rate similar to other professions of equal social value and equal educational requirements. I think we’re quite close at this exact moment, but with at least two years erosion by inflation, and then a complete overhaul of teachers salaries (downward), the gap between accounting, law, medicine, even law enforcement will grow so great that the only folks interested in the profession will indeed be the ones looking for summers off. And that’s a shame.

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