Greater Essex Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

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Liberals make case to teachers

IAN URQUHART

With so much happening on the health-care front in this province, it seems quiet on the other major front at Queen's Park: Education. However, there is actually a lot going on behind the scenes.

Last week, Education Minister Gerard Kennedy held a closed-door meeting with his "partnership table" representatives of teachers, school boards, parents and other stakeholders in the sector.

It was an unpublicized meeting with only one item on the agenda: the government's fiscal situation.

Kennedy and a bureaucrat briefed the meeting on what Finance Minister Greg Sorbara had said publicly in his annual economic statement the week before: The government is making progress in its efforts to balance the budget, but there is still much to do, and, meanwhile, education is getting a bigger percentage increase than any other portfolio, including health.

The underlying message was obvious, though not articulated by Kennedy the stakeholders, particularly the teachers' unions, who are currently in contract negotiations with the school boards, should temper their demands on the system and be thankful that education is getting what it is from the treasury. Or, as one partnership table participant interpreted it to me, "Know what side your bread is buttered on."

Kennedy himself summed up his message in an interview a couple of days after the meeting. "Education people should know how difficult it was to come up with funding for this year and next."

The education minister and the Liberal government are walking a fine line here. They desperately want to preserve "peace and stability" in the province's schools. They see a strife-free environment as an essential prerequisite to achieving the Liberals' stated goals in education, including a dramatic improvement in student performance.

(An aside: Last week, the government got some good news from the Education Quality and Accountability Office, which reported a slight improvement in scores in the province-wide tests for Grades 3 and 6. But the proportion of students meeting the provincial standard in those tests is still in the 54 to 64 per cent range, well below the 75 per cent target set by the government.)

Given the fiscal situation, however, the government does not want to pay too much to teachers in order to buy peace and stability. The government has budgeted for a 2 per cent pay hike for teachers this year, and Kennedy says there is no more coming.

Every additional percentage point of pay increase in the education sector would cost the government another $119 million, according to Sorbara's economic statement.

So the government is asking the teachers to cool it.

But the teachers look at the settlements reached by community college professors (3.65 per cent a year) and the doctors (roughly 6 per cent a year) and wonder why they have to live with 2 per cent. "Two won't do" is the slogan being used by the teachers' unions.

The unions are making other demands beyond basic salary increases. The elementary teachers, for example, want an increase in their "prep time" (200 minutes a week, up from about 140 minutes today). The government says that would cost an additional $400 million. The union says the true cost is about half that amount. Either way, it's a lot of money.

In an effort to mollify the unions, the government has been making non-monetary concessions to them. For instance, the Liberals have scrapped two Conservative initiatives: mandatory recertification (so-called "teacher testing") and the entry exam for graduates of teachers' colleges.

In the coming weeks, Kennedy is expected to restructure the College of Teachers, the regulatory body for the profession, to give "classroom teachers" a majority on its governing council.

Although Kennedy denies such moves are directly connected to contract negotiations, they will clearly have an indirect impact.

As for the unions, they have their own image problem as they enter into negotiations. This government is widely viewed as the most teacher-friendly in two decades. What credibility would the teachers have if they could not avoid strikes and reach agreements with the Liberals in power?

While the negotiations are nominally with the school boards, not the government, it is common knowledge that the government sets the monetary terms and conditions for settlements in its budget.

Kennedy himself says teachers have got to recognize that the Liberals are being as generous as any government could be. "If not us, whom?" he asks. "If not now, when?"

These are good questions. We will get the teachers' answers before the end of the school year.