Extending Ontario elementary teacher contracts—at what cost?

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, February 15, 2017

The two-year contract extension with Ontario’s elementary teachers, recently announced by the minister of education, if ratified, most likely eliminates the possibility of teacher labour disruption during the run up to the 2018 provincial election. But at what cost to taxpayers is the government buying labour peace?

We don’t yet know the details of the deal, but overtures by Premier Wynne about loosening the purse strings, and the precedent set by a separate agreement with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, which includes pay hikes and significant increases to benefit packages, strongly indicates that we’ll be paying more for public school education.

Of course, Premier Wynne will benefit from labour peace since teacher strikes are tremendously disruptive to families. Many parents in Ontario are already dissatisfied with our public schools and the dissatisfaction shows up in enrolment shifts. A recent Fraser Institute analysis using ministry enrolment data shows that a declining number of Ontario students attend public schools while an increasing number attend independent schools. In fact, between 2000/01 and 2012/13 public school enrolments declined by 5.2 per cent while independent school enrolments increased by 9.4 per cent.

To meet the growing demand, 260 new independent schools, established by parents and communities and operating without any government funding, opened in the last three years alone. Such shifts do not occur unless a significant number of parents are unhappy.

Still the contract extension—and the labour peace it buys—ensures parents won’t have another thing to be dissatisfied about. But again, at what cost to taxpayers?

Let’s be clear on the facts. Between 2004 and 2013 the amount Ontario spent annually on teacher and education worker compensation increased by $6.4 billion. This was a 47.6 per cent increase and, other than Alberta and Saskatchewan, no other province saw such a large growth rate increase. What makes this increase particularly striking is that it occurred during a period when public school student enrolment declined by 5.1 per cent.

Furthermore, Ontario spent the largest share of its public school dollars on compensating teachers and education workers in 2013/14, the latest school year of available data. In fact, fully 77 cents of every public school dollar went toward compensation. Compare this to provinces such as British Columbia and Saskatchewan where less than 70 cents of every education dollar goes to teacher compensation. That means more than 30 cents of each public school dollar in those provinces can go to things like buildings, resources, supplies and school activities.

So, this recent teacher contract extension comes during an era of dramatic increases in spending on teacher compensation. Which raises a key question—as the Wynne government moves forward with negotiations, will it ignore the dissatisfaction of increasing numbers of parents and the ever-increasing burden on taxpayers? Let’s hope not.

In striking agreements with teachers, the government’s top priorities should include addressing the concerns of dissatisfied parents and burdened taxpayers—not merely appeasing public-sector employees.

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