Don’t believe teachers' unions that say Ontario schools are underfunded

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Appeared in the Financial Post, August 29, 2023
Don’t believe teachers' unions that say Ontario schools are underfunded

Once again, a major teachers strike looms in Ontario. The Elementary Teachers’ Association of Ontario and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association plan to hold strike votes this fall. If these votes pass, teachers could walk off the job and students will be stuck at home, just as they were last year.

Not surprisingly, money is the main sticking point. Union leaders claim public education is underfunded and students are suffering as a result. But the data tell a different story. After adjusting for inflation, per-student spending in Ontario public schools increased by 3.0 per cent from 2012/13 to 2020/21 (the latest year for which data are available) while enrolment has remained essentially flat.

Meanwhile, over the same period, the government’s contributions to teacher pensions increased by more than 15 per cent — an expense that, given the large number of teachers nearing retirement, will only continue to grow. And fringe benefits, including health insurance packages, prescription drug plans and sick days, increased by 47.5 per cent, an unsustainable growth rate.

Salaries and benefits for teachers and other employees comprise the vast majority of education expenditures. While union leaders were understandably upset about Bill 124, a provincial law that capped teacher salary increases at one per cent annually from 2019 to 2022, it’s important to look at the long-term trend, not just the last couple of years when inflation was unusually high. Unions cannot claim spending increases have failed to keep pace with the cost of living when for most of the last decade increases consistently exceeded the rate of inflation.

Financial experts long ago raised the alarm about the unsustainability of Ontario’s education spending. In 2012, Don Drummond’s report on public service reform argued that the province needed to cap total education spending, cut non-teaching positions and end provincewide full-day kindergarten.

Drummond, former senior official in the federal Department of Finance, also recommended that the government adjust salary scales so teachers no longer receive automatic increases when they complete extra years of university education. Rather, such increases should only occur when an independent body determines the extra qualifications will benefit students. In other words, the focus should be on helping students, not rewarding teacher credentialism.

Unfortunately, few of Drummond’s recommendations were implemented. As a result, education spending in Ontario is more unsustainable than ever. This puts the Ford government in a difficult position as it tries to negotiate with union leaders who refuse to acknowledge fiscal reality.

The last thing Ontario students need right now is another strike. They missed more school during the pandemic than students in any other province. It’s time for everyone in the education system to buckle down and get back to teaching and learning. If that means legislating teachers back to work, so be it.

In the longer term, Ontario should follow Quebec and the four Western provinces and allow education money to follow students to the schools of their parents’ choice. Making it easier for families to exit the public school system could be just the incentive intransigent teacher unions need to bring more sensible demands to the bargaining table. At the moment, Ontario provides no funding for independent schools, which means parents who wish to enroll their children in non-government schools must pay the full cost of tuition. And yet, independent school enrolment in the province continues to rise. One possible reason, of course, is that students in independent schools do not have to worry about their teachers going on strike.

In real terms, the Ontario government is spending more on public education than ever before. Keep that in mind next time you hear union leaders claim the system is underfunded.

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