I support teachers, not a strike – Part 3 / 5 – Are the real policy issues “strike-worthy”
So at this point in my logic chain, I have:
- People should support education –> People should support education, which is mostly about teaching (a narrowing);
- Teachers disagree with the government’s approach –> The Government made a bad policy decision
The next sub-element is that teachers believe the government made a bad policy decision.
In order for us to decide it was a bad policy, let’s first articulate what exactly the elements of that “policy” are that are irking the teachers:
- Education funding levels;
- Larger class-sizes;
- Firing teachers;
- Non-renewal of lapsing “local priorities” funding;
- Violence in the classroom; and,
- Salary increase of 1%.
I confess in advance that I’m going to fall off the logic chain pretty fast in this list. Let’s start with the overall heading — education funding.
While the Government is claiming an increase in education funding of $1.2B, it’s a misleading figure, mainly as it includes a lot of money in there for child-care. When CBC boiled down the numbers, they found an increase of only $133M on a base budget of $25B, and I’m fine to go with their numbers.
I’ve said already that I’m a huge supporter of education, and I’m also pretty good at understanding macro economics, government budgeting, and large-scale policy sectors. Let’s start with two needed clarification about EVERY budget total by governments:
- It is part of a larger budget of the whole government, which affects how much is available for that sector; and,
- Budgets include base amounts plus temporary funding for special areas.
There is no MAGIC formula that will tell you what the overall budget for the entire province should be, nor what share should be devoted to education. No science or economic model will tell you the “right” answer. It is not unlike your own home budget. How much do you spend on shelter, food, transportation in a given month? Suppose you spend 40% on shelter. Is that a good number? Suppose you spend 60% on shelter. Is that a better number or a worse number? There is no “right” answer to that question, unless covering your basic human needs exceed your income. Some people want to reduce one number as low as possible so they move out to the suburbs and have a longer commute, giving them more money for other things; other people want to live close by to the city and pay higher portions of their income on shelter but avoid commuting time. There is no single “right” answer to that question. There are merely policy and budgeting choices to be made. This Government was elected on an austerity platform — they said they would reduce the deficit and that is what they are doing by reducing spending overall. No surprise there. And since they were democratically elected to do that, it’s hard to say their choice is “bad” or “wrong”, particularly when you look at the actual numbers.
As I said, the CBC has calculated the base budget for all of education at $25B, as per the government’s own public estimates. The Government is claiming it is increasing the budget by $1.2B, but that is misleading as they are including things like child-care in there. The “core” / “base” budget is only going up by $133M. About half a percent.
So let’s put this in clear perspective. The “crisis” that everyone is screaming about is that the increase was only half a percent, when they think it should have been more. Not exactly the dramatic “cuts” the teachers unions are claiming.
However, the pain is in the temporary funding. In the past, there was temporary funding for so-called “local priorities”. This was meant to be temporary funding for school boards to adapt to local pressures. And like all temporary funding, when it ends, everyone screams that they’ve been “cut” even though it was meant to be temporary. That’s kind of like saying “I made a lot of money last year because I worked a bunch of overtime” and saying “this year, my boss cut my salary” because you’re not working as much OT this year.
The additional wrinkle in there is that nobody knows what’s going to happen with the local priority funding. It wasn’t included in the budget i.e., it looks like the local “top-ups” are gone, but last year’s ECE negotiations added $60M+ back into the budget. As temporary funding.
Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t point out, the overall base budget STILL increased. Just not by as much as teachers think it should. That doesn’t scream crisis.
The rally behind class sizes is an easy one. Larger classes mean less individualized attention for students, particularly in an environment with special needs students integrated in the classroom.
The unions have a really hard time with this topic, often because what they used to say was that integration was a terrible idea. That it was disruptive and bad for the other students. When I first wrote this paragraph, I was pretty damn harsh in my response. Instead, I’ll simply note that ableism is alive and well in the teachers unions and I will never accept laying their problems at the feet of the most marginalized group in the school. The parallels are too strong with teachers trying to block desegregation in the American South 70 years ago. That won’t work with me.
But let’s ignore that discriminatory element and look at the actual changes to class sizes:
- Kindergarten — unchanged;
- Grades 1-3 — unchanged;
- Grades 4-8 — average size could go up by 1 student;
- Grades 9-12 — average size could go up by 3-5 students (not yet decided).
Now, let’s be clear. Most elementary schools have their biggest cohort up to Grade 6, with many 7&8 being shipped off to high schools. Kindergarten to Grade 3 is unchanged. 50% of the school. And the other 50% could go up by one extra student per class.
Let’s look at those numbers. Most schools do NOT have overcrowding in their classrooms. They’re under the average. The distribution is extremely variable. The problem is that what drives an increase in the average are that some schools are heavily overcrowded. Why? Because there aren’t enough schools in the area, enough teachers in that school, or space in those schools. So they get bundled up and the average goes up. But guess what? That area has a problem, those types of areas, not the entire province. If the average went up by 1 student, the vast majority of schools in the province, close to 75% would be unaffected.
In fact, you could increase the average by 5 students and it wouldn’t change much in YOUR school, at least not in the short-term. Because most schools aren’t near the average. They’re running classes as low as 16 and most under 23. The board records show what many of the schools have. There are crap schools, mainly high school, where there are 40 in a class because the school board hasn’t straightened that mess out. Not the Ministry of Education, the school board. And yet elementary school teachers in your school that offers Grades K-6 are striking about something that doesn’t currently affect your school and likely never will.
Does this scream crisis to anyone?
Here’s a shocker for you. The big claim is 1000s of teachers will lose their jobs. Really? Show me somewhere that has happened. No, I’m serious. Show me the 1000s of teachers who are now on unemployment because of layoffs. You can’t. Because I know how to read EI rates by occupation and there aren’t suddenly 1000s claiming more EI. The school boards have even agreed — nobody will be laid off. All potential elimination of positions will be done through, wait for it, attrition.
This means not a single permanent teacher will be fired. It sucks for wannabe teachers as a lot of jobs they hoped would suddenly open up likely won’t. But that, too, is not a crisis with our schools.
The basis for every decision is a little thing called labour market information. What does LMI say about education? That we have an overabundance of teachers, and we’re still pumping them out the assembly line. Doesn’t matter if there aren’t any jobs or that many teachers who COULD retire are choosing not to and working into their sixties. Or going back after retirement and taking up spaces for supply teaching since they are the best-qualified with years of experience to beat out newbies trying to break in. That is not the fault of the Ministry of Education or the school board or the schools. That is bad decision-making by wannabe teachers.
However, since we’re not ACTUALLY firing teachers, let’s not pretend we are.
But wait…aren’t there cuts? No, we already answered that. Temporary funding and temporary positions are being eliminated i.e., temporary teachers hired on contract are in limbo because no one knows what might happen with the extra School Board funding for local priorities. I’ll come back to that though.
Before I leave the section though, I would like to point out that traditionally, all Governments are TERRIBLE at cutting workers. They almost always say we’ll do it through attrition, and 2-3 years later, the numbers are actually higher. It’s usually a freeze of about 2 years, for one simple reason — to STOP / SLOW growth.
Renewal of local priorities funding
There is a challenge in here, and the people claiming a problem are dead right. Local priority funding, the temporary funding designed to respond to local priorities, has not been fully renewed. Because it was temporary.
But it was being used by School Boards to pay for supposedly “extra” things like special needs, Indigenous students, student well-being, and ESL.
Yet the temporary funding was to help School Boards adapt so they could realign their internal budgets to pay for this going forward. It was NOT additional base funding. Special needs, ESL and Indigenous students have the RIGHT to their supports and School Boards weren’t providing it. To avoid the School Boards being sued for not doing what they legally have to do in some cases, the Government gave them extra funding.
How did School Boards adapt? They didn’t. They just used the new money and changed NOTHING ELSE. This is a recurring theme. The Ministry of Education doesn’t run schools, the school boards do. When there are 40 people in a school classroom? The Board decided that, not the provincial government. Multiple portables in your school yard? The School Board.
So teachers aren’t wrong that these clients are getting underserved. Absolutely true. But is it a crisis in the school? Nope. It’s a human rights issue with both the School Board and the Ministry.
We are also talking about 2% in funding. One of the reasons it isn’t being renewed is because School Boards are supposed to be realigning money to address this problem. And they’re not, they’re just taking the new money and leaving everything else as is. That wasn’t the deal. So why should the Government keep funding bad local management?
But again, that’s not a strike issue.
Violence in the classroom
One of the emerging topics with some unions is the question of “violence in the classroom”. The rationale is clear — teachers and students should be safe in the classroom. Absolutely. 100% agree.
And if that was a serious problem, everyone should jump all over it. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a red herring, and I say that for two reasons.
First and foremost, the evidence they are using is completely fabricated. A bunch of them are using stats from occupational health and safety reports in Ontario on days missed, misusing the numbers and claiming on FB and elsewhere that it is more dangerous to be a teacher than a police officer. And people are widely sharing the memes like sheep, without first stopping to ask themselves…”Wait a minute…could that possibly be true?”. No, it can’t. Schools in Ontario don’t all look like the worst inner city schools portrayed in TV and movies with security guards, gun shootings in the gym, gangs roaming the halls, and metal detectors snagging knives every five minutes. There is no educational equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie in Ontario.
But what about the numbers they cite?
Occupational health and safety figures use “days off as a result of an incident” as their metric. And when they count those figures, they group together those that are the result of an accident (like slipping on a wet floor) or a violent incident. The memes going around show the large total for educational workers (not just teachers) which includes accidents AND violence and the small total for police that only shows violence. The combined educational total is 3x the violence only total for police. However, if you use the same metric for police, it goes up to about 6-7x that of teachers. As you would expect. And most of the OHS numbers are for accidents, not violence. But the violence numbers reported are so low, it doesn’t make their case for them.
If you want to limit it to violence only, you run into a methodological problem. If a teacher has an “incident” at school, and they want to take a day off, the union basically tells them to report it as an OHS issue. Why? Because they don’t get a bunch of vacation days off like most professions. Any of us could slip and fall at work, and if we didn’t feel up to going into work, we could maybe call in sick or take a vacation day. Teachers don’t have the same flexibilities. But if they report it as OHS, they get different leave approvals. By contrast, police DO have other leave options. And they are discouraged in cop culture for taking a day off as a result of anything related to violence. So they have a massive underreporting bias by police and an overreporting bias by teachers, and yet the numbers still favour police. Not what the unions want the public to hear, so they make up memes that are completely misleading.
Secondly, how do teachers say we should respond to this issue? By hiring more special ed teachers, psychologists, behaviour therapists, counsellors, social workers, and child and youth workers. In other words, arguing that “violence in the workplace” justifies the same increases they’ve been claiming should be done for other reasons. Yet the incident rate is pretty low and doesn’t justify that level of extra money that has to come from somewhere. Equally, it is hard to reconcile punting all these kids out of classes to the other supports when they have the human right to be in the class. Although it is consistent with the claims of teachers in the American South that blacks were more violent too.
Even if I separate out my deep-rooted suspicions, I’m left with lying numbers and a vastly over-stated set of false claims of a crisis.
Serious issue? Sure. Strike ready? Nope.
Salary increase of 1%
Ah-hah! An actual labour relations issue! Finally!
The Government was elected on an austerity platform and passed legislation limiting all public servants to 1%. Is it fair? Probably not. Should they strike to get more? Sure, why not?
Will I support you to strike? Well, now therein lies a rub.
So let’s recap. We know the Government made a policy decision, and it turns out that they are only increasing a base budget by half a percent while likely eliminating some temporary funding that was previously available to School Boards. Teacher unions are claiming it will mean larger class sizes, but Grades K-3 are completely unaffected, 4-6 might go up by a student or two on average but most schools (up to 75% or more) will see no change whatsoever. No permanent teachers are being fired, but some temporary ones might not be renewed and it might be harder for new graduates to find jobs. School Boards don’t know how much of the temporary local priority funding they might get to do what they were already supposed to be doing with their base budget and have done nothing to fix while the temporary funding was in place. The teachers unions are raising violence in the classroom as a new issue to justify massive hiring of more supports while completely lying with their stats.
None of that screams “bad policy” decision that equals “a strike is the only solution”. Not even collectively. Most of those are details that could have been addressed with School Boards or through the earlier political process by electing a Government that wasn’t focused on austerity. But we did elect an austerity Government. And the only issue left on the table is salary.
Can they strike for more money? Sure.
Am I willing to support their strike mandate for all of the other issues and/or their salary rate?
I would say “stay tuned” but the title already gives it away. I cannot.