Sunshine list—the latest evidence teacher compensation is on the rise

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, April 21, 2017

Ontario’s provincial government recently published its annual “sunshine list,” which identifies government-sector employees earning more than $100,000 per year.

Given the strong evidence of a significant pay premium in Ontario for government employees over comparably skilled and educated private-sector counterparts, it’s no surprise that the sunshine list gets plenty of attention every year. This year, however, one particular category of public-sector employees received extra attention—public school teachers.

According to the sunshine list, the number of teachers earning more than $100,000 has increased rapidly in recent years. In 2014 there were 2,517 teachers on the list. In 2016, that number had nearly tripled to 7,066.

Ann Hawkins, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, dismissed concern about the growing number of teachers on the sunshine list, noting the threshold is not indexed to inflation, the list relies on “outdated criteria,” and that its publication therefore does not serve the public interest.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education blamed the increased number of teachers on the list on a one-time payout to teachers; part of a deal to end the expensive practise of allowing them to bank—and ultimately cash-in—unused sick days.

Given these complications, it’s fair to say that the sunshine list doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about recent compensation trends for employees in Ontario’s public schools. So let’s look at the bigger picture in this major area of public expenditure.

In reality, despite near-constant complaints from some quarters that educating funding in Ontario is being “cut,” government spending in our schools has actually gone up over the past decade despite declining student enrolment. Given this fact, it’s not surprising that spending on the compensation of public school employees—the lion’s share of school operating costs—has grown briskly as well.

Between 2004/05 and 2013/14 (the last year of available detailed data), spending on public schools in Ontario rose by 39.7 per cent, reaching $25.7 billion in the last year. This, despite the fact enrolment has declined. Subsequently, Ontario’s inflation-adjusted spending per-student in public schools has jumped 25 per cent during this period.

And where has all this extra money gone? The answer is, quite simply, increased compensation for public school employees. In 2013/14, the province spent $7.3 billion more on education than it did in 2004/05. Of that, $6.4 billion, or 87 per cent of all the additional spending, went to increased employee compensation.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of teachers who play vital roles in our community and in most cases work hard on behalf of their students. What’s more, there’s nothing inherently problematic about teacher salaries rising relatively quickly over time, up to and even above the $100,000 per year mark.

But any such increases must be accompanied by concordant improvements in student performance. Crucially, under the current arrangements, there’s no clear link between teacher work performance and compensation gains, making it impossible to know if the added costs to taxpayers are justified.

This is particularly important in a province such as Ontario, which faces significant fiscal challenges including a huge $318 billion debt. Given these challenges, every major area of government expenditure should be examined closely. Growing public school budgets, despite declining enrolment and increased spending on teacher compensation, are not exceptions to this rule.

Again, a popular narrative holds that education spending in the province has been cut over time. This narrative doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Education spending has increased, largely as a result of increases in employee compensation. Although the sunshine list doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about this trend, it provides yet more evidence of these important and frequently misunderstood realities.

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