03/07/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 05/06/2012 05:12 EDT

What's the damage? Experts suss out claims around B.C. teachers' salaries

VANCOUVER - In the exchange of facts and rhetoric surrounding the British Columbia teachers' dispute, both sides are betting that money talks.

Teachers will enter their third and last day of a legal strike on Wednesday having bartered for public support around wage demands with information about how their pay stacks up against salaries across the country.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation claims its members are among Canada's worst-paid educators, ranking ninth against all provinces and territories. Teachers deserve a hike, starting with cost-of-living increases that are afforded elsewhere, its members argue.

The provincial government counters that a 15-per-cent wage increase in a time of worldwide economic troubles is "completely unreasonable."

And besides, it says, teachers' pocketbooks aren't nearly that poor compared to elsewhere. It rates teachers' salaries-plus-benefits as fourth-best when compared against other provinces but not territories.

It's enough to leave the public feeling shortchanged.

University of B.C. sociology department head Neil Guppy, whose research specializes in education, said he'd be surprised if either side was truly able to unearth comparable salary data from multiple jurisdictions.

"Having done research in this area, I have often found it very difficult to find accurate teachers' salaries where you are comparing apples to apples," he said.

Different school systems count their nickels and dimes in distinct ways, he said. For example, some add casuals while others leave in administrators.

"On and on the list goes of the ways in which you can include or exclude people to construct ... the ranking that you want to."

The union representing more than 40,000 teachers came to contract negotiations asking for compensation that will retain and attract good teachers.

They argue that without getting a salary bump, a Vancouver teacher earning maximum pay will earn $13,529 less than an elementary teacher in Toronto, $14,463 less than a secondary teacher in Ottawa and $21,001 less than a teacher in Edmonton.

The government, on the other hand, says teachers got a 16 per cent wage increase — including a $3,700 signing bonus — with their last contract. It now contends all public sector workers must accept "net-zero" contracts in which no new money is added.

In B.C., the rates teachers are paid are negotiated around the bargaining table. But the nitty-gritty of what each individual teacher takes home depends on educational qualifications and years of experience, where seniority is rewarded.

The provincial salary grid is divided into six categories, where the current contract stipulates no teacher will earn less than Category 4, even if their credentials don't match up.

A teacher needs either a five-year bachelor of education or a four-year university degree, plus one-year teachers' education degree, to be paid Category 5. In Vancouver, that amounted to pay from anywhere between $48,083 and $74,353 as of June 30, 2010 when their contract expired.

A teacher can only be bumped to Category 6 if they've got a master's degree, including a thesis or other "capstone" activity," under their belt. The maximum amount for Vancouver under this category was $81,488.

"One of the issues you run into, because education is a provincial responsibility, is different provinces assign their categories differently," said Burt Deeter, an evaluator with the Vancouver-based Teacher Qualification Service.

The arm's length, neutral organization has existed since 1969 as a clearinghouse that categorizes teachers entering B.C.'s system. It is funded jointly by the BCTF and the BC Schools Trustees Association.

A BCTF information sheet distributed on the first day of the strike said its teachers ranked ninth when comparing Category 5 qualifications across the country, or sixth if the territories are factored out.

"You can't just say a Category 6 in B.C. makes this much money and a Category 6 in another province makes that much money," Deeter said.

"So then it depends on how you want to spin the stats."

It's not unusual for teachers coming in from another province to be placed at a lower category in B.C. due to different regulations than what they were used to, Deeter added.

"That's particularly acute for Ontario," he said, noting the organization uses criteria that puts everyone on a level playing field.

He does "generally" agree with the union on one point.

"They are accurate when they're saying that teachers in Ontario are making significantly more than teachers here for similar qualifications and experience," he said. "And the same would be true in Alberta."

Though comparing either of those provinces to B.C., on the whole, can be fraught with other issues.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has just this month pleaded the case for freezing teachers' salaries for two-years. He's also aiming to end an expensive sick-leave plan that teachers can cash out if they don't take the days.

Oil-rich Alberta may be pegged by some as an anomaly, flush with cash that inflates what is affordable elsewhere.

Not enough research has been done to know whether a boost in teachers' salaries actually equates to higher quality education, Guppy said.

So he suggested the public, caught between two sides warring to sway opinion, look at other means of comparing provincial education systems.

British Columbia came second only to Alberta in a 2003 ranking by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Quebec, Ontario and then Manitoba placed in that order following B.C. by the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment.

"You can extract from that and say, maybe our teachers are being paid exactly the right amount, they don't need any more money," Guppy said.

"My point there would simply be that teachers certainly must be doing a good job in this province relative to other provinces given the quality of student success on these programs."