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Kids pawns again in latest grumbling from teachers

With the end of the school year in sight, teachers across the province are making noises about a possible strike. Putting the year in jeopardy is for the students’ benefit, they say, without a hint of irony.

Not, of course, that anyone believes a word of it.

In Waterloo Region, public high school teachers could go on strike as early as May 4. Their elementary school counterparts are in that position as of May 10.

There is a recognizable pattern: teachers engage in skirmishes with the province and with their boards, the organizations that set the workaday agendas; parent councils struggle with extracurricular activities and the threat of work stoppages; and, as always, caught in the middle are students who suffer the consequences of decisions made by their elders.

The teachers’ unions have trotted out the tired old line about putting students first in every strike, work-to-rule campaign and labour negotiation, with only one goal in mind: getting more taxpayers’ dollars.

Given the perception that teachers are overpaid and underworked (all those holidays), coupled with the economic hard times for most Ontarians, public sentiment is clearly not with the unions. Parents are already fretting over what might happen if their children are used as pawns yet again. Expect the fallout to tar the teachers most of all, as they’d be the ones responsible for school closures even as they are unable to articulate a single valid reason for their current position.

Blame also lies with the province. Job action by teachers and other civil servants that became the norm under the Mike Harris government got the band-aid treatment when the Liberals took over: some modicum of labour peace was achieved by throwing money at the situation. That path was treacherous. The funds came with no real accountability, so the education system got no better – some would argue it worsened – even as teachers and administrators enriched themselves. Later in its tenure, the McGuinty government felt the wrath of the very same teachers with short memories as it realized its spending wasn’t sustainable.

Kathleen Wynne again threw the dog a bone when she took over, but her own fiscal mismanagement means spending must be restrained. Though not cut, the education budget isn’t increasing at a pace suitable for teachers’ looking for more, always more. That their ranks grow even as enrolment drops and many dubious changes have been made – class sizes, for instance – simply to artificially inflate the number of jobs has been forgotten in the spirit of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?

Given that such was the same reaction to her predecessor’s eleventh hour attempt at fiscal prudence, Wynne should have known what was coming.

Nobody in this struggle is wholly at fault or wholly blameless.

Typically, governments argue they are trying to control costs and introduce more public accountability. But their actions are usually more about politics than altruism.

The teachers argue they are trying to preserve quality in the schools. But saving jobs and boosting working conditions are the purview of their unions.

Really, the government should have set the terms right from the beginning, reigning in spending on costs not of benefit to the public – i.e. salaries and benefits – and focusing on classroom improvements such as technology that would help achieve higher educational standards. Ontarians got just the opposite, and we’re all suffering for it today.

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