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It would be nice to begin a school year without having to listen to teachers complain – that they're underpaid and disrespected by their employers, that they need more preparation time, that they've been robbed of sick days or that they can't be held accountable for student test scores.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne tried for a complaint-free back-to-school by granting pay raises she said she wouldn't grant and backing off a demand to increase class sizes in order to reach contracts with two of the province's teachers unions just before school began last week. But the deals must still be ratified and negotiations are continuing with two more unions, including the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, whose president last month warned the Liberal government and school boards that they were in for "the fight of their lives."

This is a strange show of gratitude, considering that one of Ms. Wynne's first acts as Premier in 2013 was to give ETFO members a 2-per-cent pay raise to close the gap with their Catholic and French counterparts, reversing a penalty imposed in 2008 when the union dragged its feet on negotiations but still managed to snag a 10.4-per-cent raise over four years.

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Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a more teacher-friendly premier. Ms. Wynne got around her predecessor's move to impose a two-year pay freeze in 2012 – albeit after nearly a decade of above-inflation salary increases and a near doubling of the provincial debt load – by reducing the number of unpaid professional activity days that teachers must take, from three to as few as one, and providing an "attendance incentive" to teachers who don't use all of their sick days. Ontario's auditor-general pegged the cost of all of Ms. Wynne's 2013 goodwill gestures at $468-million.

According to a new C.D. Howe Institute report, three-quarters of Ontario teachers fell into the highest pay category in 2013-14. Teachers with 10 years of seniority earned a salary of about $92,000, putting them in the 85th percentile of all income earners in the province. That is before pension benefits that enable teachers to retire with a full pension before they turn 55, a perk that leaves them far better off than most Ontarians earning a similar salary in the private sector.

No one begrudges paying teachers well. They perform a critical and noble role in society in the transmission of knowledge, skills development and socialization of our most impressionable citizens. Every one of us bears the imprint of the teachers who influenced our early lives.

But it's disingenuous to argue that teachers are underpaid or disrespected. Unions have made it nearly impossible to reward the best teachers for their effort or talent, or to purge the deadwood. Seniority is the only basis on which boards can make hiring decisions. Attempts to make teachers account for how they spend the 240 minutes a week they get to prepare for class are met with pitchforks – even though 37 per cent of Ontario teachers admitted they frequently or always spend their prep time venting frustrations to co-workers, according to a 2014 study done for the Ministry of Education.

The C.D. Howe study, meanwhile, concluded there was no correlation between teacher pay and student test scores. It notes that British Columbia students outperform their Ontario counterparts on standardized international tests, despite a teacher salary that puts them in the 81st percentile of all income earners in B.C. and less-generous pensions than in Ontario.

The study, done by Wilfrid Laurier University professor David R. Johnson, suggests there is "room to reduce the growth of teacher compensation so that teachers in other provinces end up in similar salary percentiles to teachers in B.C." But the report is likely to have the opposite effect, with B.C. teachers demanding a raise that puts them in the same pay percentile as Ontario teachers – or better yet, Manitoba teachers, whose salaries put them in the 93rd pay percentile in that province.

Spending on K-12 education has grown at more than twice the rate of inflation in Canada in the past decade despite a 5-per-cent decline in enrolment. The increase might have been justified if it were actually spent on the kids. But almost three-quarters of it went toward compensation for teachers and non-teaching staff, according to a new Fraser Institute study. Pension costs alone grew at an annual rate of 7.6 per cent nationally in the decade to 2013.

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Even with the new math, that does not add up to disrespect.

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