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February 10, 2012

It's time to invest a bit in teachers and a lot more in kids

by Susan Lambert

Susan Lambert

Jock Finlayson of the Business Council of BC doesn’t think B.C. teachers should get a salary increase that would help them catch up, even a little, with teachers in other provinces. Finlayson characterizes the BCTF salary proposal as a “substantial boost.” Can a proposal that calls for a cost of living increase, in effect a salary freeze, in the first year be characterized as a substantial boost? Government’s net-zero policy means an equivalent cut in pay. Should we then characterize the net zero government policy as a substantial cut in pay for the province’s teachers?

The BC Public School Employers’ Association is at the bargaining table offering nothing while demanding deep contract concessions. Surely even Finlayson would concede that is no way to get a deal.

Statistics Canada reports that between 2000 to 2010, where teachers took two net-zero years, public sector salaries in B.C. rose by 16.9 per cent while inflation increased by 19 per cent. Teachers’ salaries have declined not only in relationship to colleagues across the country but in terms of real purchasing power here at home.

Finlayson cites average salaries to assert that B.C. teachers rank fourth in pay among the 10 provinces, but actual salaries tell a different story.

Beginning teachers in Vancouver with five years of university start $5,000 behind their counterparts in Regina and Winnipeg, and $13,000 behind those in Calgary.

At the top of the salary scale, Victoria teachers with five years of university earn $15,000 less than teachers in Toronto, and $20,000 less than those in Lethbridge.

One-quarter of B.C. teachers have masters degrees, and here again the wage gap is significant. Experienced Vancouver teachers with a Masters earn $13,000 less than they would in Ottawa, and $17,000 less than in Edmonton.

Starting salaries for teachers in B.C. rank 8th or 9th lowest out of the 10 provinces, depending on years of education, while maximum salaries rank 6th to 8th lowest.

Contrary to what Finlayson states, these rankings do not include the Territories. Our assertion that B.C. teachers rank 9th in Canada is an accurate one.

Finlayson further argues against a fair salary increase because there is no teacher shortage in B.C. But due to Liberal cuts there are 3,500 fewer teaching positions and 15,000 classes over the government’s own class-size and composition limits; powerful indicators of the shortage of teachers in classrooms.

In 1991–92 the Ministry of Education’s budget was 26 per cent of the provincial budget. By 2009–10 it had shrunk to 15 per cent. By contrast, the Alberta government spends 30 per cent of its provincial budget on education.

Since government illegally tore up teachers’ collective agreements in 2002, we have seen massive divestment from public education in B.C. Over $3 billion has been cut from the education budget to pay for the 25 per cent tax cut that so richly benefit Finlayson’s Business Council members.

Finlayson also argues against a salary increase saying that teachers enjoy good holidays and a well-funded pension plan.

In fact, teachers do not get paid over the summer and they do pay for their pensions, contributing over 10 per cent of salary from the very first day of teaching.

B.C. teachers work on average 48 hours per week, which adds up to an additional 10 weeks per school year. Many take summer jobs to pay off student loans or to make ends meet for their families.

Thousands of teachers return to university during the summer to improve their skills and better meet their students’ needs. Teachers also subsidize the system by spending thousands of their own dollars on classroom supplies.

Despite a wage freeze for 2004 and 2005, followed by modest increases in the last five years, B.C. teachers’ salaries, benefits, and working conditions have fallen far behind those of other teachers across the country.

But B.C. teachers aren’t asking to catch up to other teachers across Canada in a year or even over three years. We’re just saying that it’s time this government put resources back into public schools, addressed the problems of class size and composition, and made a fair offer to help teachers keep up with inflation and catch up a bit with other teachers across the country.

It’s time to invest a bit more in teachers and a lot more in kids.

Susan Lambert is president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Reprinted with permission of the BCTF.