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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

For teachers and government, the end of the affair Add to ...

Welcome back to school, kids! Please be nice to your new teacher. She might be feeling rather cranky. After all, she’s just been jilted. The guy who’s been so good to her for so long has suddenly turned cold. In short, she feels betrayed.

“Teachers are being treated really, really badly,” Grade 8 teacher Ed Coombs told The Globe and Mail. “It breaks my heart.”

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For as long as anyone can remember, the teachers’ unions and progressive politicians have been a match made in heaven. Sure, there was the odd squabble and broken crockery when times got tough. But they always got back together. Teachers are popular with the public (especially the teachers they know, the ones who teach their kids), and parents want them to be treated well. And teachers’ unions are powerful allies at election time. This happy symbiosis has worked well for years.

But now, the money has run out. The relationship has hit the rocks, and things will never be the same again.

It’s not just Ontario, where Dalton McGuinty, the self-styled Education Premier, is imposing unilateral wage freezes and clawing back valuable perks, such as banked sick days. Across North America, even progressive politicians are demanding wage concessions, longer work hours, pension-plan givebacks and even (horrors) performance evaluations.

Something else has changed too: public sentiment. When Mike Harris roughed up the teachers back in the 1990s, the public was largely on the teachers’ side. This time, the teachers’ unions can’t count on that. That’s because the teachers are doing so much better than the rest of the public. Thanks to the Education Premier, Ontario teachers are among the best paid in the world. There’s nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that we can’t afford it.

In Ontario, the average teacher makes $83,500 a year. An experienced elementary-school teacher tops out at more than $92,000 a year. That’s a lot of money for teaching Grade 3 in Thunder Bay. Benefits are generous, and the cost is typically paid entirely by the employer. Then there are the summers off, the job security and the guaranteed pension that begins as early as 55. Someone who qualifies for the full amount will collect $63,000 a year (including CPP), which is considerably more than the average salary for experienced teachers in the United States ($56,000 in 2010-2011).

Mr. McGuinty’s romance with the unions has cost a fortune. Even though enrolment has declined by 250,000 students since 2003, the province has added thousands of extra staff to the education payroll, and education spending has increased by $8.5-billion, according to the opposition Progressive Conservatives. Neither the government nor the unions levelled with the public about how fast teacher salaries were going up. The official line at bargaining time was that they’d held increases to, say, a modest 3 per cent. They neglected to include the effects of the salary grid, which ensures that less experienced teachers get raises just for sticking around. In fact, since 2003, teachers’ compensation has gone up by 30 per cent, the PCs say.

This helps explain why the province is $15-billion in the hole. Mr. McGuinty is like the pyromaniac who set the barn on fire, then bravely led the fire brigade to the rescue.

I’ve got lots of sympathy for the teachers. It’s not their fault we’re in this mess. Their unions only did their jobs, which was to get the best deal on offer. Most teachers are dedicated and work hard. They know they’ll never have it so good again. They’re already having to cough up more for their pension plan, and over time, their pension benefits will have to shrink. I know that my niece, who’s in teachers’ college, is unlikely to do as well as they have. In the short run, she’ll be lucky to get a teaching job at all.

But in the long run, I’m not too worried. As the old alliances between politicians and public-sector unions crack up, new arrangements will take their place. Think of what our schools and teachers could do if they were liberated from the dead weight of the education bureaucracies and the unions. Sometimes a breakup can be the best thing that ever happened.

The average salary for experienced teachers in the United States was $56,000 for 2010-2011. Incorrect information appeared in the original newspaper version and an earlier online version.

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