Skip to main content

Jill Smith has had it. The fight between the teachers and the Ontario government is ruining her Grade 12 year. The mural project, the fashion show, the charity fundraiser, and even the prom might all head down the drain. And now, the final straw: The teachers have refused to write reference letters for students applying to university.

"I feel this is a fight between the 'grownups' – the government and the teachers' union – but somehow it's the kids who have to deal with the consequences," she says.

Whenever teachers face off with governments, the kids get thrown under the bus. It's always been that way. What's changed is that the teachers no longer have the public on their side. Ontario is broke, and most people figure everyone should share the pain – even teachers. That's only fair. And if they don't get it, they should be legislated back to work.

The truth is, the grownups have been throwing the kids under the bus for years. As school buildings crumbled into disrepair and parents held more and more bake sales to raise money for supplies, governments and unions colluded to negotiate generous raises and perks in exchange for support at election time. Between 2003 and 2011, Ontario increased its education spending by 45 per cent (not counting the extra funds for all-day kindergarten). Most of that money went to salary increases for the teachers.

People wouldn't mind if they thought their money was well spent. They don't. Why should teachers get 20 paid sick days a year? Why should they be able to cash them when retiring? Why is the system so mismanaged?

In Toronto – home to the fourth-largest school board in North America – the public has been treated to a steady drip of horror stories from the Toronto Star, featuring grotesquely padded maintenance costs ($143 for installing a pencil sharpener) and payments from outside contractors to the maintenance union. The school board is responsible for 250,000 students and a $3-billion budget. Yet it's so dysfunctional it doesn't even know how many people work there. Its construction projects have huge overruns, such as a $16.4-million renovation reported in The Globe and Mail that is $8.4-million over budget and still unfinished. Elementary teachers take an average of 18 sick days a year, but there is no program to manage attendance.

The Toronto District School Board has long been dominated by left-wing trustees who are impervious to any suggestion of reform. But until now, the government has been reluctant to move in. The money squandered by the board would pay for hundreds of teachers and thousands of books.

When times were good, no one cared how much sick leave a teacher took, or how much it cost to screw in a pencil sharpener. But now that money is scarce, the old alliances are shattering. Even the most progressive, teacher-friendly governments can't afford this stuff any more. As the social contract gets redrawn across the country, students will be frustrated and parents will be fuming for years to come. Fortunately, there will be good news. More of our education dollars might actually be spent on students.

For the record, Jill Smith thinks her teachers are amazing. "They are incredibly dedicated and devoted to me and all the other students, and my impression is they feel awful about not being able to fully support and help us." It's not their fault they're caught in this jam. It's their unions' fault, for misreading the public mood.

I'm optimistic that Jill will get her reference letters and her prom – eventually. The public will insist that the teachers be legislated back to work. She'll also get a civics lesson she won't forget. It might be the most memorable thing she learns all year.