“Putting Students First” doesn’t mean putting teachers last

October 1, 2012

Details of the Ontario government’s ironically named Putting Students First Act have not been adequately explained to the public. The missing facts about this legislation follow. 

Pay Freeze

Every four years, when teachers’ contracts come up for collective bargaining, the salary grid is updated — usually to allow for cost of living increases of approximately 3% per year. These are the “raises” that Premier McGuinty and the media keep talking about, but actually they did no more than maintain the value of teachers’ current compensation.

Contrary to what the government has repeatedly been claiming, the unions agreed to a virtual pay freeze (not giving every teacher 3%) months ago. What we oppose is a bill that imposes a two-year pay freeze. 

Grid Freeze

Moving young teachers through a seniority grid is not the same as giving them a raise. The seniority grid, 11 years long, is a way to recognize experience and is an irrevocable term of previous contractual agreements. It’s the structure of how teachers get paid, and it was promised to us when we were hired. One can’t hire a contractor, spend the money on something else, and then say, “Sorry, I can’t pay for that new kitchen.” 

In addition to the pay freeze teachers accepted, this legislation is imposing a two-year freeze of positions on the grid. 

Lengthening the Grid

Another imposed change is the re-definition (extension) of the grid. Changing the length of the salary grid from 11 to 21 years means it will take 10 more years to reach the value of professional services rendered. Add a two-year freeze to that extension, and one earns far less in 16 years than she would have earned, without this bill, in four years. Teachers can’t negotiate salaries, raises, or bonuses like many in the private sector can: these changes are non-negotiable.

Theft of Personal Property

Sick days are our form of short-term disability insurance, and teachers pay for them out of their salaries. In previous collective agreements, we decided it was important to set aside earnings so that, when we are unable to work, we are insured. We pay for that insurance with money that would otherwise be earned as salary, and we decided to set aside enough salary to cover 20 days per year.

Because those days are funded by our money, if we don’t use them, they stay in our “banks.” Because these days have cash value, we think about how they need to be used or saved, just as anyone does with any sort of money. The days we’ve banked are our personal property — like money in a bank account, or any physical object with monetary value. So when the government says that ”the economy is in recession and everyone has to do their part,” and uses this excuse to wipe out our banked sick days, this not only undermines gains from previous collective bargaining agreements, but it constitutes theft of personal property.

When the economy is slumping, the government does not visit people’s houses and say “we’re taking $25,000 from you,” “we’re repossessing your car,” “we’ve cashed in your GICs,” or “we now own 5% of the equity in your house.” We teachers earned our banked sick days in the past through hard work. They are not a “frill” to be retroactively withdrawn. 

Do the Math 

The new sick day model makes zero economic sense. The average teacher used 6.4 of his/her 20 sick days last year and banked 13.6. Because the value of a sick day is greater in the present (approximately $250) than it is in the future ($0-$155, depending on the end-of-career accumulation) and a used sick day comes with the additional cost of a supply teacher, use of sick days in the present is far more expensive to the government. Factoring supply teachers out of both sides of the equation, paying out 6.4 sick days costs the government approximately $1,600.

If sick days expire at the end of a year, and they have no cash value at the end of a career (since the “gratuity” payout is also being revoked), teachers will be encouraged by the legislation to use all available 10 days each year. Let’s say the average goes from 6.4 to 9.4. The cost to the government goes from $1,600 to $2,350 per teacher per year. It’s the numerator (used sick days) and not the denominator (potential sick days) that matters.

Another part of the new legislation is that the government is offering a ludicrously expensive 120 days at 90% salary with a doctor’s note (66% without). The old system of 20 bankable days amounts to a maximum of $5,000 per year. Under the new legislation, if a teacher is sick for the covered 130 days — 10 days at 100% salary + 120 days at 90% salary — this could cost the government $29,500 per year using the same scale of $250 per day. 

Old system: up to $5,000 per teacher per year, with an incentive for the teacher to ration the sick days. 

New system: up to $29,500 per teacher per year, with no financial incentive for the teacher to ration. The motivation for this change is not cost-savings, but political capitalization on the public’s desire to see teachers take a hit. 

An Additional 1.5% Pay Cut 

The Putting Students First Act requires teachers to take an additional pay cut of 1.5% in the form of three unpaid days (in lieu of Professional Development days) per year. Professional Development days are necessary to allow teachers to learn about and improve technology in the classroom, to share and discuss a variety of best practices, to have departmental meetings on issues of fair and accountable assessment and evaluation, to learn about how we might serve our neediest students most effectively, and so forth. Paying teachers for professional development represents an investment in the skill and professionalism of teachers, and in the healthy functioning of public schools.

Manufacturing a Crisis and the Erosion of Democracy 

Premier McGuinty, Education Minister Broten, and Conservative party leader Hudak knowingly misrepresented the situation to the public when they claimed in August that “The start of our school year is at risk.” This was fearmongering and opportunistic politicking. For the Liberals, it was about a calculation of how to win two by-elections and gain a majority government. For the Conservatives, it was about creating fear and resentment of public sector workers in general, and mustering public support for changing and weakening the province’s labour laws.

The fact is that we teachers never threatened to strike. The government preemptively took away not only teachers’ right to strike, but also our fundamental right to collective bargaining — a right that is guaranteed in Canada’s constitution. Read these two sections of the act carefully:


14. (1) The Ontario Labour Relations Board shall not inquire into or make a decision on whether a provision of the Act, a regulation or an order made… is constitutionally valid or is in conflict with the Human Rights Code.

15. (1) No term or condition included in an employment contract or collective agreement under or by virtue of this Act, process for consultation prescribed under this Act, or decision, approval, act, advice, direction, regulation, or order made by the Minister or Lieutenant Governor in Council under this Act shall be questioned or reviewed in any court.

Agreement with the Catholic Teachers

The government has used the media to leverage the “agreement” reached with the Catholic school boards to suggest that the public boards were refusing to negotiate, when in actuality the public boards were pleading to negotiate. The Memorandum of Understanding with the two Catholic boards should not have been used as a template for other publicly-funded collective bargaining agreements. The Catholic boards feel that their publicly-funded days may be numbered. 

Tim Hudak’s repetition of Ronald Reagan’s line — “if someone offers you half a loaf, take it” — is disingenuous at best. Half a loaf is preferable to no bread at all, but public boards are not in the same danger of ceasing to exist, so “half a loaf” for the Catholic boards can’t and shouldn’t be applied to the public boards.

Linking Compensation to the Economy

The philosophy underpinning a “times are tough: do your part” approach is the idea that teachers’ compensation should be linked to economic conditions. But if that were so, teachers should receive large raises when the economy is booming; teachers who taught through recession periods should get retroactive bonuses; and teachers should have the right to negotiate salary increases to offset cost-of living increases. 

Effect on Public Education 

Because there is a link between employee morale and employee efficacy, our children are not in fact being put first; they are being cheated. If we care about the public good, teachers must be respected and compensated fairly to attract the best and brightest. This bill will have a devastating effect on public schools. With the decimation of school board budgets and the possibility of formalized (e.g., work to rule) or individual decisions not to perform or coach extra-curricular activities, parents who can afford it may pull their kids out of the public system, lowering enrolment and teacher employment. 

How to Save Two Billion Dollars 

Two billion dollars can be saved in education right now. Here’s how: 1) eliminate the misleading sacred cow used only for political gain that is the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test; 2) put an end to ludicrously expensive technology and food contracts, whose services are of embarrassingly low quality; 3) provide incentives for early retirement so that more eligible teachers opt to move on, and younger (cheaper) teachers can replace them; 4) avoid lengthy, expensive legal battles that inevitably follow such unconstitutional measures as the misnamed Putting Students First Act. 

(Misha Abarbanel is English Curriculum Leader, Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute: mrabarbanel.com and President of the Ontario Student Debating Union: www.osdu.on.ca)