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Retired teacher Graham Bonesteel , left, hands out timbits to striking elementary school teachers picketing in front of York Region District School Board offices in Aurora, December 13, 2012.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's teachers have had a good run under Premier Dalton McGuinty: the introduction of full-day kindergarten; a cap on primary class sizes; and generous pay increases of as much as 12 per cent over four years.

Now the good times have come to an end. The province has a $14.8-billion deficit, and public-sector workers cannot remain immune from the forces of the broader economy. Members of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, who announced a massive walk-out Tuesday, need to curb their expectations.

Yes, the political handling of the file has been clumsy and high-handed, especially for a leader who built his reputation as the education premier. Some argue that Bill 115, passed in September, goes too far in removing teachers' right to bargain collectively (and in dictating the terms of their contracts). The teachers are challenging this in court.

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The ETFO and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, which in protest has withdrawn volunteer services such as running clubs and sports teams, should consider coming back to the table. Otherwise, the contract negotiated by Ontario's French teachers association, and the Catholic teachers association will come into effect for all teachers on Dec. 31. It imposes a two-year wage freeze for all but the most junior teachers, and a reduction in annual sick-day allotment from 20 to 10 days. It also stipulates teachers take three unpaid professional development days in exchange for preserving the grid that guarantees annual salaries go from an entry level of about $40,000 to $90,000 over 10 years. These terms do not seem unreasonable. The Ontario Medical Association recently agreed to a two-year freeze – albeit the contract was negotiated, not imposed.

Teachers occupy a special rung on the public-sector ladder. Many play heroic roles in motivating and inspiring children to become their best selves, and they deserve to be well compensated. But banking annual sick days is no longer justifiable. Wage increases cannot continue indefinitely. Smaller classes and all-day kindergarten, on the other hand, are changes worth preserving. Teachers are not likely to get a better deal. Ontario simply can't afford it.

Editor's note: The Ontario Medical Association recently agreed to a two-year freeze with the Ontario government. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Canadian Medical Association agreed to the freeze. This online version has been corrected.

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