On May 4, about 12,000 unionized Saskatchewan teachers walked off the job in one-day protest strike against lagging contract negotiations. Students lost a day of schooling and parents were given little notice of the impending strike, yet picketing teachers held up placards proclaiming “For Our Students.”
“For Ourselves” would have been a more accurate slogan for the striking teachers. The Saskatchewan government has offered them a 5.5-per-cent increase in salary over three years – the same amount which the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union accepted in a contract settlement with the province last year. But this offer is not nearly enough for the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation: it is demanding a 12 per cent pay hike in just one year.
Time and again, other provinces have also faced exorbitant demands from striking teachers. Students suffer, parents are inconvenienced and taxpayers end up footing the bill. And that’s not the worst of the problems besetting the public schools in province-wide systems. In comparisons with independent schools, they are also far less responsive to the expectations of parents and score substantially lower on standardized tests of educational achievement.
What, then, stands in the way of more government support for independent schools? The main obstacle is Canada’s immensely powerful teachers’ unions.
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) recently ordered its 45,600 teachers to pay an extra $60.00 each into the union’s political action fund. Together, the OECTA and the much larger unions in the Ontario public school system will have close to $10 million to back opponents of the Progressive Conseratives in the upcoming Ontario election campaign.
The teachers’ unions prefer Liberals and New Democrats who promise to augment the huge increases in spending lavished on the province’s under-performing public and Catholic school systems over the past eight years of Liberal rule.
If the Ontario Progressive Conservatives win the election, will party leader Tim Hudak stand up to the teachers’ unions? Probably not. So far, he has shown no disposition to allocate any financial support to independent schools.
Tony Blair, the former Labour Party Prime Minister of Britain, is made of sterner stuff. In A Journey: My Political Life, he recalls that by the beginning of his second term, he and his advisers had concluded that improving England’s mediocre, publicly financed, school system would require fundamental reforms including: “changing the monolithic nature of the service; introducing competition; blurring distinctions between public and private sector; taking on traditional professional and union demarcation of work and vested interests; and in general trying to free the system up, letting it innovate, differentiate, breathe and stretch its limbs.”
After much effort, Blair persuaded his Labour colleagues to authorize public funding for city academies, the name for independent schools in England. “Today, of course, the results are clear,” wrote Blair. On standardized tests of student achievement, “academies are improving three times faster than other schools.”
When Blair left office last year, there were 203 academies in England, comprising 6.5 per cent of all secondary schools. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron plans to take the reform much further. In a policy paper on education released in March, his government stated: “It is our ambition that Academy status should be the norm for all state schools, with schools enjoying direct funding and full independence from central and local bureaucracy.”
Given the success of the academies, who would want to oppose this change? The teachers’ unions, of course. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers in England has denounced the academies policy, claiming it “leads to anarchy, breaking up the local education system, preventing sensible and efficient planning, and opening up free-floating schools to private firms with profit motives.”
Will the parents of England be taken in by this union propaganda? Not likely. Like Blair, they can see that independent schools, whether faith-based or secular, provide children with a superior education at substantially less cost to taxpayers.
Hudak and other Canadian politicians should take note: instead of kowtowing to the teachers’ unions, they, too, should abolish Canada’s union-dominated public schools in favour of a superior network of competing, independent schools.