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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

The battle over education isn't about the money

The government is keen to make the battle over education all about the money. But it isn't and has never been about that. This is about ideology, plain and simple.

You have to hand it to Minister Lecce: he has at least been consistent about his talking points. He repeats them, almost word for word, in every interview and press conference he gives. He's fighting for the students, and teachers are refusing to negotiate in good faith because we want an unfair amount of compensation. His government is the reasonable one, the one that has “moved” on negotiating positions like class size and mandatory e-learning, while we teachers have stubbornly refused to accept the offer of a 1% wage increase for each year.

If you take Minister Lecce at his word, then no wonder you see the unions and our job action as petty. His government is just trying to pay down the debt created by those irresponsible Liberals, and if increasing class sizes and moving students towards e-learning to cut education worker positions is how they need to cut costs, well … that's what has to be done, right? Yes.

The problem is that it's not that simple. It's never that simple.

Both sides have been throwing numbers out into the void like they're going out of style. Lecce keeps repeating that OSSTF's cost-of-living increase in wages (which keeps being presented as 2%, although the union just wants it to be indexed to inflation, whatever that happens to be) will cost the government $1.5 billion over 3 years. This stymied many people until eventually someone figured out that Lecce has combined all compensation increases for all education workers, including the CUPE employees who have a "me too" clause in their recently-negotiated contract, as well as presumably other unions. There's actually nothing wrong with this calculation, but to present that as the cost of increasing compensation only for OSSTF members is misleading to be sure.

Similarly, I saw lots of different statistics flying around Twitter last night regarding the proportion of the education budget that goes to teacher salaries. Some people said 50%. Some people said 85%. This is a legitimate question to ask, but when all you do is toss out a percentage in a tweet, I can't tell if you're correct or not.

So last night I went searching for some more information. Surely someone has crunched these numbers. Sure enough, here's what I found.

Crunching Them Numbers

First, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Behind the Numbers blog has many posts dedicated to analyzing some of the Ford government's education-related proposals. Tranjan (2019) provides an updated estimate of how many teaching jobs will be eliminated by 2024 following Lecce's announcement that the government will only increase class size averages to 25. He says that the 4900 lost high-school teachers would equate to “7.6 million instruction hours” lost per year and says “losing 5,900 teachers is a really bad deal for Ontario students.” Given that the CCPA is a self-styled progressive think tank, it's not surprising that Tranjan interprets the numbers in this way.

Even if we suspend any conclusions for the moment, though, the post (and similar ones) provide some good insight into tangible differences in the education system should the government's proposals be enacted. Increasing class size means fewer education workers, which saves the government money but is obviously not something the union wants for its members. I’m very comfortable admitting that, and I can’t think of any union who wouldn’t admit that. It is no secret that unions want to protect their members’ employment, and it’s a little puzzling that critics of the union’s position are trying to point it out like this is some kind of news.

Is it better or worse for students? Reeves (2019) cites research that smaller class sizes have an impact during the earlier years, but the correlation is less evident during high school. Therefore, it is difficult to empirically conclude whether or not increased class sizes correlate with poorer outcomes for students—this an ideological issue.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who is satisfied with stopping at one source of information. I kept digging. I wanted to know about those greedy teachers' salaries!

Fortunately for me, the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy published an in-depth analysis of education spending for 2017–2018 in November 2018. They followed that up with a post last April about cost savings from larger class sizes. Both articles are very detailed and come with some great, easy-to-read charts that pull numbers directly from government or government-adjacent documents. From these two posts I learned:

  • In 2017–2018, salaries and benefits were $10.5 billion of the $27.3 billion budget. In other words, just under 40%. A far cry from the 85% that some people were yelling about (Bartlett & Reeves, 2018)!
  • However, the IFSD also notes that the $27.3 billion figure omits $1.7 billion in government contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Plan (Bartleet and Reeves, 2018).
  • Paradoxically, however, 60% of the “average cost per student in a secondary school” goes to teachers’ salaries (Reeves, 2019). That’s contradictory at first glance until you understand the context:

This cost-per-student is calculated by dividing the benchmark salary of teachers and supplementary staff by the number of students they represent, then adding the cost-per-student of learning material and supplies (e.g. textbooks, science lab equipment, hardware/software etc.). Additionally, while the salary of a classroom teacher is divided by the number of students in the teacher’s class, the salary of a librarian or guidance teacher is divided by the number of total students served. This means that, while guidance teachers, librarians, and classroom teachers, are paid the same benchmark salaries, the salaries of classroom teachers are the largest drivers of spending because they are spread over a smaller number of students. (Reeves, 2019).

So basically, the expense of a teacher is divided among all the students they teach, while the expense of other education workers is divided among all the students in the school (I already knew this, but seeing the numbers in context helped me to understand how we both ideas—that salaries are less than 50% of the budget, but 60% of the cost per high school student—are concurrently true). Consequently, Reeves (2019) concludes that if pay cuts are off the table, and if the government also can't conjure up a dramatic spike in enrolment, then increasing class sizes (and thereby reducing the number of teachers, necessarily) will result in significant cost savings over time. He concludes the article by declaring “the savings have to come from somewhere” with that decidedly menacing tone that seems to accompany all right-leaning think tanks articles.

Do they, though? Do the savings have to come from somewhere?

Possible Futures

The government could just raise taxes.

Yes, I know, any conservative readers of this post have just clutched at their chests. Hey, you're allowed to disagree with me on this point, but I just had to put it out there: they are the government. Raising taxes is a thing they can do. So it's untrue to say that the only way to solve Ontario’s debt problem is to cut public services. There are alternatives. There are different ways to solve this math problem—it’s just that the Ford government and its supporters don't want to raise taxes. This is a legitimate point of view, but it is not one that follows inexorably from the available facts. It is an ideological position.

Even if we take a revenue increase off the table and say no to raising taxes, it still doesn't necessarily follow that class size increases and mandatory e-learning are the only ways to save costs. The government spent $11.6 billion in 2017–2018 on “Special Purpose Grants” (Bartlett & Reeves, 2018). That’s more than it spends on salaries—are there savings in there? What even are “special purpose grants”?

I’m not saying the government should reduce special purpose grants (if you've been paying attention, you've probably figured out I think the government should spend more on education and find the money, somehow). My point, however, is that the education budget, and indeed our education system, is not set in stone. The government's own plans around class sizes and e-learning make that evident, meaning that this not the only plan that will work. Indeed, OSSTF (2019a) has proposed many topics of discussion regarding cost savings. This includes costs around EQAO, short-term voluntary unpaid leaves, and changes to sick leave procedures. It appears that the government has only recently supplied some of the information they need to have this discussion, however so it remains to be seen what types of savings might result (OSSTF, 2019b).

There is a narrative out there that this is simple economics, money in vs money out, with the argument going that there isn't enough money in to cover all the money going out, and so the cuts are necessary to keep everything sustainable. And yes, that is true. Just like it's true that there is also no need to cut anything in education. I looked at two reliable analyses of the data, one that resulted in some left-leaning conclusions and one that resulted in right-leaning conclusions—because this is not about the numbers. Our education system is so incredibly complex that if you massage the numbers enough, you can use them to justify any conclusion you like.

Opinion pieces from conservative commentators like to repeat the same justifications over and over: teachers make $86 000 (or $92 000) on average each year! Teachers don't work during the summer! They only work 5 hours a day! They like to flatten and oversimplify what is actually an incredibly complex education system with so many moving parts. They never seem to mention the educational assistants, the librarians, the secretaries, the custodians, all the other people behind the scenes who actually make our schools function. If you gleaned your entire understanding of the education system from these screeds, you wouldn’t get a very accurate picture. The reality is far more complex. It speaks to a fundamental disrespect for public education, for unions and collective bargaining, for the training and dedication of all the professions involved.

I make it a habit not to underestimate the amount of work any profession does, because unless I have the opportunity to spend a day in your shoes, I honestly couldn’t begin to understand it.

So it really isn't about the money. This is, has been, and always will be an ideological battle. This is about using numbers to create a smokescreen of objectivity around an anti-union, anti-worker stance.

As a teacher and a member of OSSTF, obviously I am biased. Obviously I want fair compensation for myself and the many education workers (including lots of non-teachers!). And I do want what's best for students. I just happen to disagree with supporters of the government's agenda that increased class sizes and mandatory elearning, that having fewer teachers and SSPs and ECEs and child psychologists, etc., is somehow better for students. I believe that a stronger public education system requires more funding, not less. I believe that the constant refrain of “we can’t afford it” is tired, lazy, and defeatist. It’s also reprehensible that a country claiming to be one of the best in the world thinks “we can’t afford to pay for our children’s education” is a legitimate talking point. The quest for fiscal responsibility is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, and I don’t necessarily disagree a priori with my more conservative peers about the need to budget responsibility. But if fiscal responsibility were the government’s sole priority, it has missed so many opportunities in this round of bargaining to achieve that. Its proposals are motivated more by creed than cost concerns.

You can be supportive of unions and collective bargaining and still disagree with my union’s proposals, of course. You are welcome to disagree, and I am happy to have a discussion about it—but don't try to pretend that the numbers only point to that one conclusion. The numbers alone cannot tell a story. They can help us shape our stories, but those stories are guided as much, if not more, by the ideologies we've already adopted.

What we decide, as a society, over this next year is going to reshape Ontario's education system for a good while to come. And it isn't about the money—because the government could find the money from somewhere, if it wanted to. It's about priorities, and about what our vision of public education in this province should be. The government has had its chance to “negotiate in good faith,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Minister Lecce. Instead, it chose to declare war on education workers even before bargaining began.

We didn’t start the fire, but we sure as hell are going to put it out.