Nearly half a million B.C. public school students missed their first week of classes due to the labour dispute between teachers and the provincial government.
Since job action escalated in the spring, both the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) and the government have argued by tossing numbers into the public debate while providing little context.
While provinces keep their numbers differently, making comparisons difficult, a look at Alberta and Ontario – provinces that also have dicey relationships with their educators – sheds some light on teachers' compensation and working conditions elsewhere in Canada.
For example: While new teachers in B.C. make salaries that are comparable to their counterparts in other provinces, those with more experience or expertise lag behind. In Alberta and Ontario, top-ranked teachers can earn up to $20,000 more a year.
And while the BCTF and government argue about appropriate class sizes, Alberta favours loose provincial guidelines over legislated caps, resulting in class sizes ranging from a handful to nearly 50 students.
Nina Bascia, an associate chair at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, believes the real issue behind the B.C. conflict is less about the numbers and more about the initial move by the B.C. Liberals to strip the teachers of certain collective bargaining rights in 2002 without consultation.
"The position that the BCTF wants to go back to early-2000s isn't about the numbers," Ms. Bascia said. "It is about the principle."
The ability to bargain class size and class composition is at the heart of the current B.C. teachers’ strike. When the province’s ruling Liberals stripped the B.C. Teachers’ Federation of its ability to negotiate those conditions in 2002, class-size limits were introduced through provincial law.
British Columbia’s neighbour has gone a different route. Rather than legislate caps on class sizes, Alberta has suggested provincial guidelines, which are often missed. While the province has a low average class size in high school, that average masks a large gap between the largest and smallest classes. In the Calgary Board of Education, the largest high school class reported in early 2014 was 44 students; the smallest was five.
Provinces across the country have differing approaches. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island have no caps at all, while Quebec, B.C. and New Brunswick have class limits throughout the public system. Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador use caps in the earlier years of elementary. Research shows that smaller classes are most beneficial in the early years of education.
While negotiating for a new fund and interim measure, the BCTF has indicated a preference for pre-2002 language
Kindergarten: Cap of 20 students
Grades 1 to 3: 22 students
Grades 4 to 7: 28 students
Grades 8 to 12: 28 students
B.C. 2013-2014 class-size averages
Kindergarten: 19.3 students
(Current government cap of 22 students)
Grades 1 to 3: 21.5 students (Cap of 24 students)
Grades 4 to 7: 25.7 students (Cap of 30 students)*
Grades 8 to 12: 23.0 students (Cap of 30 students)*
*Can be exceeded in cases where large classes are beneficial, including band, drama and physical education.
Alberta 2013-2014 class-size averages
Kindergarten to Grade 3: 19.9 students (Provincial guideline of 17 students)
Grade 4 to 6: 22.4 students (Guideline of 23 students)
Grades 7 to 9: 23.2 students (Guideline of 25 students)
Grades 10 to 12: 23.2 students (Guideline of 27 students)
Ontario class sizes
Kindergarten to Grade 3: 20 students cap (Does not apply to full-day kindergarten)
Grade 4 to 7:
School-board-wide average of 25 students
Grade 8 to 12:
School-board-wide average of 22 students
In B.C.’s debate on staffing levels, class composition is taken to mean the number of special needs students in each class, as well as the number of counsellors, teaching assistants and librarians in schools. Prior to 2002, the number of specialists in schools was dictated by a formula requiring a set number of educators for every 100 students. Those ratios were stripped from collective agreements in 2002.
The province’s current proposal to deal with class composition is the creation of a $75-million annual fund that would be spent by local school boards according to their own needs. The BCTF is asking for a $225-million annual fund to hire more teachers as an interim measure until a court decides on the restoration of the pre-2002 language.
The BCTF has indicated a preference for the pre-2002 language, which provided for ratios:
Teacher librarians 1:702 students
Counsellors 1:693 students
Learning assistance teachers 1:504 students
Special education teachers 1:342 students
ESL teachers 1:74 identified students
The government has said it could cost upwards of $1-billion to restore the 2002 language, a figure the union disputes. The B.C. government could not provide The Globe with the current number of specialists employed in the province’s public school system or the current ratio of specialists to student.
Despite a decrease in the overall number of special-needs students, some subsets have expanded significantly in public schools over the past decade. The government has asked the BCTF to re-examine what constitutes a special need. The government says the number of cases of autism in the system has increased to 6,750 in 2014 from 1,312 in 2001. Before the strike, there were 558,985 students in B.C.’s public system; just over 10 per cent were listed as special needs. Provincial law stipulates no class should have more than three special-needs students. More than a quarter of the system is above that benchmark. In 2013, 15,937 classrooms in the province had four or more students with a special need – an increase of 54 per cent since 2007.
With 625,000 students in 2014, 10 per cent of Alberta’s education system is also made up of special-needs students. The province has no regulations at the provincial level over special-needs students, leaving those decisions to individual school boards. Alberta Education does recommend that class size be kept smaller when a number of special-needs students are present.
More than 16 per cent of Ontario’s two million students received special-education services in 2013, a figure that has increased by 23 per cent since 2003. The province leaves decisions on special-needs students to local school boards.
British Columbia has a complex system of pay grids for teachers, with factors including level of educational achievement and years of service. Those with a bachelor’s degree and a bachelor of education are considered Category 5 – the average minimum salary for which is $47,539 and the maximum salary is $74,353. Teachers with two bachelor’s degrees and at least one master’s degree are considered Category 6 – the average minimum salary for which is $52,362 and the maximum is $81,561. Those in remote regions make more; a Category 6 teacher in the Northwest Territories could max out at $118,419, for example. The average teacher salary in B.C. is about $72,000.
Wages have been a major point of contention in the dispute. The teachers’ union is asking for an 8-per-cent increase over five years – down from the 13.5 per cent over three years it was asking for earlier this year – while the government is offering 7 per cent over six years. This is the closest the two sides have been to date on wages, but a number of factors – including the BCTF’s call for a $5,000 signing bonus the government says would cost $150-million, and a $225-million annual workload fund to address class size and composition – keep them far apart. (The government’s earlier offer of a $1,200 signing bonus has expired.)
In Alberta, an average, full-time teacher with four years of university (bachelor’s degree) earns about $58,500; five years of university $61,800; and six years of university $65,400. After 10 years, those figures grow to $92,300, $95,600 and $99,300 respectively, according to Alberta Education. Alberta teachers are the highest paid in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.
With bachelor’s degree: $47,539 to $74,353
Two bachelor’s degrees and master’s degree: $52,362 to $81,561
With bachelor’s degree: $58,500 to $92,300
With six years’ university: $65,400 to $99,300
No experience and minimum level of qualifications: $39,500 to $50,979
Ten years’ experience and highest level of qualifications: $83,730 to $97,605
Pensions have not been heated issues in the showdown between the BCTF and the provincial government. The country’s teachers continue to receive generous pensions – most are still defined benefit plans. According to pension expert Jim Leech, a series of changes over the past decade has made the plans largely sustainable. Most of the money in teachers’ pension plans is from good returns on investments, not from teacher or government contributions.
B.C. pension plan
The average annual value of a pension in 2013 was $35,400. The average age at retirement is 60, after a typical service of 25 years. Teachers become eligible for a full pension at 60.
Employees contribute 12.5 per cent of their salary up to the maximum pensionable earnings, according to the Teachers’ Pension Plan of British Columbia. Cost of living adjustments are not guaranteed and are granted annually.
Ontario pension plan
The average pension for a teacher who retired in 2013 was $49,300. The average age at retirement is 59, after a typical service of 26 years. Teachers become eligible for a pension when their age plus years of service equals 85.
Teachers contribute 11.5 per cent of their salary up to the maximum pensionable earnings, according to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. The plan currently adjusts inflation protection at 45 per cent of the change in the consumer price index.
Alberta pension plan
The average annual value of a pension in 2013 was $37,548. The average age at retirement is 60, after a typical service of 26 years. Teachers become eligible for a pension at 65 or when their age plus years of service equals 85.
Teachers contribute 11.44 per cent of their salary up to the maximum pensionable earnings, according to the Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund. The plan currently adjusts inflation protection at 70 per cent of the change in the Alberta consumer price index.
Canadian students perform well in the areas of mathematics, reading and science in a global context, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), whose Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests hundreds of thousands of 15-year-old students from 65 countries on key subjects every three years.
However, despite performing well among other OECD countries, Canadian students’ mathematics scores have steadily declined from 2003 to 2012, dropping down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006 to land at 13th overall in the latest PISA scores.
There are also marked variations between provinces. Teens in Quebec, for example, performed better in mathematics than those in B.C., Alberta or Ontario, all three of which performed at the average Canadian level. When it came to reading, B.C. was the lone province to perform better than the Canadian average; in science, B.C. and Alberta both performed better than the rest of the country.
The Conference Board of Canada, which also ranks high school attainment nationally and internationally, found nine out of 10 Canadian provinces earned either A or A+ grades for the percentage of their population with at least a high school diploma, according to its 2012 How Canada Performs program. B.C., Alberta and Ontario received A+ grades because they scored higher than all of Canada’s peer countries.
B.C., which scored the highest level of high school attainment (91.4 per cent) across all provinces, also produced students with high-level reading and science skills (letter grades B and A, respectively), according to the program.
The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association’s public administrator, Michael Marchbank, has played down the issues of class size and composition by saying “educational outcomes have significantly improved” since those formulae were removed from collective agreements under then-education minister Christy Clark in 2002.
However, most test scores show no clear trends over the past decade, and the teachers’ union counters that performance outcomes are being sustained only because of teachers’ hard work despite dwindling resources.
Teacher benefits vary across B.C.’s 60 school districts – a leftover from when bargaining was done at the district level prior to 1994. While agreements are now negotiated at a provincial level, overlapping agreements mean variations in the extended health benefits across districts, with some standing to benefit more than others.
Among its proposals, the BCTF is seeking: the inclusion of fertility drugs; improvements to its dental plan; and a continuation of benefits for one year for dependents upon a teacher’s death.
Earlier this week, Premier Christy Clark provoked BCTF members and supporters by repeatedly asserting in a news conference that the union wants “unlimited massages” – something it had never in fact asked for. The union had proposed a $3,000 maximum massage benefit for members with chronic health issues, but that had been taken off the table before Ms. Clark’s news conference. A proposal to increase regular massage therapy benefits to $700 from $500 remains on the table.
For maternity leaves, the union is asking for the employer to top up EI benefits for the first 17 weeks so that mothers would receive 100 per cent of their salaries during that period. For the remaining 35 weeks, the BCTF is asking the employer to top up the pay to 60 per cent of the employee’s usual salary. For parental leaves, the union is asking salaries be topped up to 100 per cent for the first two weeks, then to 60 per cent for the additional 35 weeks.
B.C.’s Ministry of Education says the average, newly hired Category 5 teacher’s compensation for benefits and allowances, including employer-paid pension contributions, was $10,870 in 2011/12.
According to Education Alberta, full-time teachers receive $7,500 in benefits in that province, while full-time teachers in Ontario receive $9,950 in benefits, according to the Ontario Ministry of Education. As with other provinces, these figures may vary by school district.
On its Web page dedicated to teaching positions, Make a Future, an arm of the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association responsible for recruiting teachers, promotes generous vacations, generous pension plans and paid and unpaid leaves (including bereavement, compassionate care, maternity and parental).
Just the numbers (averages):