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Misha Abarbanel

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Ontario Is Cheating Our Children

Posted: 01/26/2013 9:00 am

The details of Bill 115, Ontario's ironically named Putting Students First Act, have not been adequately explained to the public. The missing facts about this legislation follow.

Pay Freeze
When teachers' contracts come up for collective bargaining -- usually every four years -- the salary grid is updated to allow for cost-of-living increases of approximately 3% per year. These are the "raises" of which Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten, and a variety of uninformed columnists have been speaking. Actually these so-called "raises" do no more than maintain the value of teachers' current compensation. To help with a deficit they didn't create, teachers were willing to accept a pay freeze (forgoing the 3% increase to compensate for cost-of-living and inflation) months ago, but as Rick Salutin brilliantly put it this month, "the government refused to take 'yes' for an answer." We don't necessarily oppose a pay freeze; we oppose a bill of which one part is a pay freeze.

Freezing and Lengthening the Grid
Moving young teachers through a seniority grid is not the same as giving them a raise. The seniority grid, 11 years long, is a way to recognize experience and is an irrevocable term of previous contractual agreements. Some terms are negotiable each bargaining cycle; some are not. One can't hire a contractor, agree on a payment schedule, squander the money, and then refuse to pay for the new kitchen. Similarly, the government can't contractually establish a schedule of payment for services to be rendered, create a deficit by mismanaging funds, and then refuse to pay the invoice. In addition to the pay freeze teachers accepted, this contract is imposing a two-year freeze of positions on the grid.

If the salary grid is lengthened from 11 to 16 or 21 years, as it seems it could be, and if the salary at the top of the grid remains the same, which is likely, it will take up to 10 more years to reach the value of professional services rendered than is currently the case. This would constitute an enormous constraint on career earnings. Teachers can't negotiate salaries, raises, or bonuses like many in the private sector can.

Theft of Personal Property
Sick days are a short-term disability insurance plan, and teachers pay for them out of their salaries, or if this explanation makes more sense to you, out of the total value of their compensation package. In previous collective agreements we decided it was important to set aside earnings so that when we are unable to work, we are insured. We pay for that insurance with money that would otherwise be earned as salary, and we decided to set aside enough salary to cover 20 days per year.

Because those days are funded by our money, if we don't use them, they stay in our "banks." Because these days have cash value, we think about how they need to be used or saved just as anyone does with any sort of money. The days we've banked are our personal property -- like money in a bank account, or any physical object with monetary value. So when the government says "the economy is weak and everyone has to do their part" and uses this excuse to take previously earned assets by wiping out banked sick days, this not only undermines gains from previous collective bargaining agreements, but it constitutes theft of personal property.

When the economy is slumping, the government does not visit people's houses and say "we're taking $25,000 from you," "we're repossessing your car," "we've seized your GICs," or "we now own 5% of the equity in your house." We earned our banked sick days in the past. They are not a "frill" to be retroactively withdrawn.

Do the Math
The new sick-day model makes zero economic sense. The average teacher used 6.4 of his/her 20 sick days last year and banked 13.6. Because the value of a sick day is greater in the present (approximately $250) than it is in the future ($0-$155, depending on the end-of-career accumulation) and a used sick day comes with the additional cost of a supply teacher, use of sick days in the present is far more expensive to the government. Factoring supply teachers out of both sides of the equation, paying out 6.4 sick days costs the government approximately $1,600.

If sick days expire at the end of a year, and they have no cash value at the end of a career (since the "gratuity" payout is also being revoked) teachers will be encouraged by the system to use all available 10 each year. Let's say the average goes from 6.4 to 9.4. The cost to the government goes from $1,600 to $2,350 per teacher per year. It's the numerator (used sick days) and not the denominator (potential sick days) that matters.

Another part of the new legislation is that the government is offering 120 days at 90% salary with a doctor's note (66% without). The old system of 20 bankable days amounts to a maximum of $5,000 per year. Under the new legislation, if a teacher is sick for the covered 130 days -- 10 days at 100% salary + 120 days at 90% salary -- this could cost the government $29,500 per year using the same scale of $250 per day.

Old system: up to $5,000 per teacher per year, with an incentive for the teacher to ration the sick days. New system: up to $29,500 per teacher per year, with no financial incentive for the teacher to ration.

The motivation for this change was not to save costs so as to help eliminate the deficit, but to politically capitalize on the public's desire to see teachers take a hit, and to attempt to win the two by-election seats needed to secure a majority government.

An Additional 1.5% Pay Cut
The new legislation requires teachers to take an additional pay cut of 1.5% each year. The pay cut comes in the form of three cancelled non-instructional working (or Professional Development) days. Professional Development is necessary to allow teachers to learn about and improve technology in the classroom, to share and discuss a variety of best practices to support real student success, to have departmental meetings on issues of fair and accountable assessment and evaluation, to learn about how we might serve our neediest students most effectively, and so forth. Paying teachers for professional development represents an investment in professionalism, excellence, and the healthy functioning of public schools. The only private sector manager who would eliminate employee training, and damage employee morale by cutting salaries, is one who cares nothing for productivity, and who fails to understand the relationship between morale and efficacy.

Linking Compensation to the Economy
The philosophy underpinning a "times are tough: do your part" approach is the idea that teachers' compensation should be linked to economic conditions. If compensation is to be linked to economic conditions, teachers should receive large raises when the economy is booming; teachers who taught through prosperous periods should get retroactive bonuses; and teachers should be given the right to negotiate salary increases to offset cost-of living increases.

Manufacturing Contempt and the Attack on Collective Bargaining Rights
Premier McGuinty, Education Minister Broten, and Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leader Tim Hudak claimed last August that the start of the school year was at risk. This was fearmongering and opportunistic politicking. For the Liberals, it was about the aforementioned calculation of how to win two by-elections and gain a majority government. For the Conservatives, it was about creating fear and resentment of public sector workers in general, and mustering public support for weakening the province's labour laws.

The fact is teachers never threatened to strike. But we couldn't have even if we had wanted to: the government preemptively took away not only teachers' right to strike, but also our fundamental right to collective bargaining -- a right guaranteed in Canada's constitution.

In urging teachers to resume extra-curricular activities the government has exhorted us to stop putting students in the middle and to let the courts decide. These two sections of the act have been much-discussed of late. Read them carefully:

14. (1) The Ontario Labour Relations Board shall not inquire into or make a decision on whether a provision of the Act, a regulation or an order made... is constitutionally valid or is in conflict with the Human Rights Code.

15. (1) No term or condition included in an employment contract or collective agreement under or by virtue of this Act, process for consultation prescribed under this Act, or decision, approval, act, advice, direction, regulation or order made by the Minister or Lieutenant Governor in council under this Act shall be questioned or reviewed in any court.

Picking an unnecessary and financially counter-productive fight with teachers puts students in the middle, and the courts can't decide on anything if they are prohibited from doing so.

Agreement with the Catholic Teachers
The government has attempted to leverage the "agreement" with the Catholic school boards (rather, a few individuals representing Catholic boards) to suggest that the public boards have refused to negotiate, when in actuality the public boards have been pleading to negotiate since last spring. The Memorandum of Understanding with the two Catholic boards should not be used as a template for other publicly-funded Collective Bargaining Agreements. The Catholic boards signed mainly because they feel their publicly-funded days may be numbered.

Effect on Public Education
Not only is there a link between employee morale and employee efficacy, an important predictor of a successful education system is teacher compensation. Our children are not being put first; they are being cheated. If we care about the public good, teachers must be respected and compensated fairly to attract the best and brightest. This bill will have a devastating effect on public schools. With the decimation of school board budgets and the absence of extra-curricular activities -- stay tuned for installment number two -- parents who can afford to do so may pull their kids out of the public system, further diminishing enrollment, teacher employment, funding, and public education in general. There are many other ways to deal with the deficit this government created.

How to Save Money on Education Immediately
Two billion dollars can be saved in education right now. Here's how: 1) eliminate the misleading sacred cow used only for political gain that is the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test -- stay tuned for installment number three; 2) put an end to ludicrously expensive technology and food services contracts, whose dividends are of embarrassingly low quality; 3) put an end to ludicrously expensive maintenance contracts imposed on the board by the Ministry of Education (yes, the $143 pencil sharpeners were $143 because of a Ministry-imposed contract); 4) incentivize retirement so that eligible teachers move on, and younger (cheaper) teachers can replace them; 5) avoid lengthy, expensive legal battles that inevitably follow unconstitutional, destructive gaffes like the misnamed Putting Students First Act, or Bill 115.

Media Coverage and Political Spin
The Liberals recalled the legislature two weeks early to push through an ill-conceived, fiscally irresponsible, incomplete bill, which is detrimental to education in every respect; attempted to sell the bill to the public, without explaining it, by using rhetoric to appeal to the public's anti-teacher sentiment; lost their by-election and their desired majority government; and then they prorogued the legislature until further notice. It's been months now. Our MPPs haven't sat in the legislature since October, yet they continue to assert that somehow teachers, by withholding a supererogatory, non-contractual part of their jobs as the only remaining form of protest available, are the ones who are somehow derelict in their duties.

Further, the coverage of this fracas has established a new low in mainstream journalism -- or as my students might say, an "epic fail." One professional provocateur recently asserted that teacher unions -- those charged with advocating for fair terms of employment for those who educate our children -- are "obsolete". Reporters of 'hard' news have similarly failed to gather counterpoints and report facts, resulting in the cacophonous opining of uninformed columnists, editorialists, readers and commentators alike. The spin that the government has put on Bill 115 has gone virtually unchallenged in mainstream media, who are now declaring the bill "repealed" after all its terms and conditions were irrevocably imposed. The public hears "repealed" and misses the rest.

Over the last many months, derisive, ad hominem verbal attacks have been directed both at teachers as a group, and at union leaders (when it is deemed important to appear magnanimous toward teachers). As one of my favourite journalists, Keith Law of ESPN, often says, ad hominem attacks are for people who have no rational arguments. Teachers may not have appropriate compensation anymore, but at least we have our dignity, as well as a slew of facts and rational arguments. For these reasons, as I heard someone say recently, extra-curricular activities will be prorogued by individual teachers until further notice.

A modified version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of the CCPA Monitor, the monthly newsletter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and also on the author's personal blog, educateforgood.com

 
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