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the battle of the classroom

It is impossible not to be aware of the recent chaos, uncertainty, and disruption in Ontarioís public schools. When dinner table conversation with children involves a provincial law, something is up. Since its passage by the Ontario Legislature in early September 2012, Bill 115 – or The Putting Students First Act – has become a mini-lesson in Civics for many families with children.

Bill 115, The Putting Students First Act or the act of putting students first?

January 14, 2013 – As with many lessons, however, it is important that balance be provided so all of us can try as best as possible to understand what the issues are.

Amidst the yelling and protesting, school closings, threatened closings and slogans, it is difficult for most people to determine exactly why all of the current chaos is happening. The debate is extremely polarized with one side insisting the issues are those of fundamental rights and the other advancing the view that the issues are about cost and how to maintain an excellent education system in the face of very tight public resources. Added to the mix is the raw emotion of respect for a critical profession.

Like many of you, at SayItCanada we too are citizens and parents, consumers of public education, and taxpayers who fund it. My children attend public schools. My experience with my daughters' teachers has been excellent and my children are better for the experiences they have received. I believe our teachers should be well paid, their education should be rewarded, and their profession should be esteemed and valued.

But as with all great arguments, there is truth to each side. In the meantime, the details and sheer extent of the current dispute means that it has been next to impossible to get simple facts in one place. So after a few days of scouring websites, we bring you this primer on the current conflict in Ontario schools. We warn you, itís long but we hope it will be worthwhile and meaningful to all Ontarians. As detailed below, this dispute has developed over almost a year, is complicated and with significant financial implications, and involves multiple parties. It would be impossible to turn out all of this information in just three or four little paragraphs... We strive to present you with facts, not opinion, and we encourage you to learn these details before you form your own.

This article is broken down by the following sections:


Just over two million Ontario children attend tax-supported schools. There are approximately 190,000 teachers working in four school systems: the Public English system, the Public French system, the Catholic English System and the Catholic French System.

Teachers in Ontario are represented by four major Unions which style themselves as federations. The organization of these federations largely mirrors the structure of the four main school systems (we suggest you jot down what the acronyms stand for because throughout the remainder of this article, these Unions are referred to in their short form):


Teachers are legally employed by the 72 school boards in the Province. The main teacher Unions are organized into smaller local 'bargaining units' which negotiate and reach contracts at a local level. This organizational structure is a legacy of the days when local school boards actually had a role in setting local property tax rates for education and it made sense that negotiations occur locally as school boards had the ability, if they wanted, to alter local tax rates to pay for different terms with teachers.

For many years, however, local property taxes for education have been set by the Province which collects all of this revenue. The reality today is there is one payor but this is not fully reflected in how teacher contracts are developed. Since 2003, negotiations with teachers has taken place, for all intents and purposes, at the Provincial level. At this level, the basics of compensation and benefits have been set and outlined in memoranda of understanding. These then set the basis for the 72 individual contracts developed at the local level with school boards and local wings of the teachers' Unions.

In practice, these local contracts have not altered the main financial terms set at the Provincial level. Once a local contract is negotiated, it has to be approved – or ratified – by votes of affected local teachers and also agreed upon by the local school boards.

To put the process as succinctly as possible, there are three steps involved when teachers negotiate their contracts which are generally two or four years in length. Since 2004, there have been two rounds of contract negotiations which led to two contracts of four years each. The process of negotiating contracts is:

  • Agreement at the Provincial level is negotiated by major teacher Unions and the Provincial Government
  • Local agreements between teacher Unions and school boards are negotiated
  • Ratification by teachers of contracts proposed locally


In the two most recent rounds of negotiation, teacher settlements have been very generous.

In the bargaining round for the 2008-2012 contract renewals, it was widely reported and concluded that bargaining tactics by the ETFO leadership back-fired, leading to a lower settlement for this Union than by the secondary school teachers. It is not unreasonable to assume that ETFO's leadership faced pressure in this round to:

  • Equal the settlement received by others, and
  • Ideally make up the gap from previous round

The 2008-2012 contract expired 31 August 2012. Well before this date, the Province started the Province-level discussions with the major Unions. Here is the timeline:

  • February 2012: Province-level discussions started
    • ETFO walked away from the discussions after the first day
  • March 2012: in the Provincial Budget, the Government made it clear that it would legislate settlement of outstanding contracts if negotiated settlement could not be reached
  • April 2012: OSSTF left negotiations after their offer was rejected
  • August 2012: AEFO and OECTA reached negotiated settlements for their new contracts
  • September 2012: the Government passed Bill 115 which gave it the right to impose contracts based on the OECTA contract if negotiated settlements could not be reached before the end of 2012
    • Bill 115 mandated that new contracts for ETFO and OSSTF would mirror the terms negotiated by OECTA and AEFO. In previous negotiations, the terms for all four systems have been essentially comparable. Mandating the same pattern of agreement is not in-and-of-itself terribly new or revolutionary
    • approximately 59,000 school support staff represented by an additional 14 Unions, with the largest being the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), reached negotiated settlements for their new contracts before the end of 2012
  • January 2013: the Government acted on the power in Bill 115 and contracts for ETFO and OSSTF are now in place


Education is funded entirely by the Province. Schools are not part of the Government of Ontario but are considered to be part of what is called the Broader Public Sector which also includes hospitals, colleges, and universities that receive all or the bulk of their funding from the Province. In 2012, wages in this sector totalled $42 billion. Payments to doctors through OHIP adds an additional $12.5 billion to bring the total broader public sector Compensation Cost to almost $55 billion.

The Education Sector as a whole spends approximately $21.5 billion each year, $18.5 billion for salaries and wages for all staff – the bulk of whom are teachers. This is more than the $20 billion the Province collects in sales taxes like the HST.

Teacher compensation is about 1/3 of all compensation in the Broader Public Sector. In addition, the Province also transfers funds as needed to meet any shortfalls in the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund. This amount can vary based on the performance of their pension plan’s investments. In recent years, and as a result of the recession of 2008, the shortfall has been significant. For the 2011/12 fiscal year, it was $850 million bringing total cost of teacher benefits and compensation to more than $19 billion.

By way of comparison, the amount spent on teacher compensation is more than the total amount dedicated to social assistance and employment ($7.3 billion), the Ontario Child Benefit for low income families ($934 million), child care ($860 million), drug benefit programs for low income Ontarians and seniors ($4.4 billion), medical equipment program for home-based elderly and disabled Ontarians ($400 million), and total support for colleges and universities ($5.1 billion).

The Province collects about $5.8 billion each year from Education Property Tax which reflects the reality that for many years, local schools were significantly funded by local taxes. The unfairness of this approach has long been recognized and the Province has run the education portion of property tax for many years.

  • For a home owner, the education portion of property tax is generally about 30% of the total property tax paid and for businesses it is closer to 45%
  • The property tax covers about 25% of the school system
  • The remaining 75% comes from general Provincial Tax revenues

The root issue in this dispute is the fact that the Province set out to significantly restrain its costs as it addressed a current deficit of over $14.4 billion. The Government has argued that a wage freeze in the Education Sector is required to avoid cost increases in compensation. If increases occurred, the Government has argued that it would be forced to pay for them by undoing the reforms in the Education Sector accomplished since 2004 which include the expansion of programs like Full Day Kindergarten, building new schools, reducing class sizes, and hiring more teachers.

If the teachers' 2008-2012 contracts were renewed without modification, the cost would be significant. To pay for increases in their compensation, the Government suggested that it would need to cut existing programs in the Education Sector that included:

  • Slowing down its implementation of Full Day Kindergarten
  • Increasing class sizes in early grades
  • Eliminating 6,200 teaching positions
  • Eliminating 3,800 positions for Full Day Kindergarten
  • Eliminating nearly 10,000 non-teaching positions

OECTA and AEFO proposed measures to allow the Government to freeze its costs for these school systems.

OSSTF proposed measures that largely accomplished the same goal.

ETFO identified Corporate Income Tax and Personal Income Tax as areas where tax increases should be made to allow the Government to avoid pursuing a wage freeze.


Teachers in Ontario are well paid compared to teachers in Canada, teachers in other countries, and most Ontarians. In recent years, average pay has increased 8.5% per year. Between 2004 and 2012, secondary school teachers secured increases of 27% and public elementary teachers secured increases of 25%.

  • Starting pay for a teacher in Ontario is approximately $42,000 to $44,000 per year
  • Secondary school teachers are generally paid more than elementary school teachers
  • Over the first ten years of a teaching career there is a steady annual progression through something called the grid which increases a new teacher’s pay by about 50%
  • The maximum wage in the elementary system is $92,813/yr
  • The maximum wage in the secondary system is $94,942/yr
  • All full-time teachers with at least five years experience make more than $57,000/yr

Compared to teachers in Canada

  • An Ontario teacher with a 4yr undergraduate education, a 2yr teaching degree, and with eight years of experience makes an average of $84,000/yr
  • Same level of experience / education, the national low is $52,400/yr (Quebec)
  • Same level of experience / education, the national high is $88,000/yr (Alberta)
  • Ontario is second in Canada at $84,000/yr

Compared to Ontarians

  • More than 50% of Ontarians have employment income of less than $30,510/yr
  • More than 75% of Ontarians have employment income of less than $57,230/yr

Compared to other advanced economies of the world

Canada is one of the advanced economies of the world which are part of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). The OECD recently surveyed its 34-member countries. Overall, Canadian teachers are better paid than teachers in 28 other OECD countries and better paid than in every other English-speaking country with the exception of Ireland. The OECD found that in 2010:

  • The average starting salary for an elementary school teacher in Canada was approximately $34,500/yr
    • in Ontario it's approximately $43,000/yr
  • In the USA, the starting salary averaged under $37,000/yr
  • In Canada, the fifteen year average was almost $55,000/yr
    • Ontario teachers with at least five years of experience make more than $57,000/yr
    • Ontario teachers with eight years of experience make an average of approximately $84,000/yr
  • In the USA, the fifteen year average was $45,225/yr
  • Across the entire OECD (34 countries), the average maximum salary was $37,600/yr

Compared to other professionals with comparable education

The OECD also looked at teachers' pay compared to level of education. It found that teachers in Canada, on average, made 105% of what people with comparable levels of education earn. In the USA, elementary school teachers made 67% and secondary school teachers made 72% compared to Americans with similar educations.

  • On an hourly basis, the OECD survey showed:
    • Canadian elementary school teachers earned an average rate of $68/hr
    • Canadian secondary school teachers earned an average of $74/hr
  • According to Statistics Canada:
    • a unionized Ontario employee earns $28.65/hr on average
    • a non-unionized Ontario employee earns $22.60/hr on average


In February 2012, the Government outlined its desired contract terms for a two-year contract. With respect to compensation, the Government sought a two-year freeze of all salary meaning no advancement by younger teachers, raise the salary grid, and no cost of living increases for all teachers. The Government estimated that these actions would save a total of $790 million over two years.

Wage Freeze and Inflation
ETFO has suggested to its members that a wage freeze will see them fall behind unless there are cost of living increases to keep teachers’ pay in pace with inflation.

  • Between 2004 and 2012, total inflation in Canada has totalled 15.4%
  • Over the next two years, it is expected to increase an additional 3% for a total inflation rate from 2004 through 2014 of about 18%
  • Teacher’s contracts for 2004 through 2012 provided total increases of 25-27%
  • With a two-year wage freeze for 2013 and 2014, teacher compensation for 2004 through 2014 will be greater than inflation during the same time period by 7-9%

Wage Freeze and Young Teachers
The issue of allowing younger teachers to advance through the salary grid provoked significant concern.

The OSSTF proposal in April 2012 accepted a two-year basic wage freeze but proposed inflation increases for the two years after that. It did not accept any freeze in the increases related to the advancement through the pay grid for younger teachers. This proposal was rejected by the Government which lead to OSSTF leaving the negotiations.

ETFO has not made any proposal regarding the issue of a pay freeze or proposed any alternatives to meet the goals set by the Government.

The deals negotiated by OECTA and the French-speaking federation allowed for advancement through the grid for younger teachers to remain unchanged. To pay for this, these federations proposed:

  • all teachers take three unpaid PD days in the second year of the contract
    • this is the same as a 1.5% pay cut for teachers
    • PD days already exist so there is no reduction in time for children in school
  • grid advancement pay increases are modified by essentially three months, meaning a pay increase under the grid takes effect in January of a school year rather than in September

This is the model that has been imposed by Bill 115. On compensation, Bill 115 means:

  • For 2004 to 2014, teachers' total basic compensation will have increased 23.5% to 25.5%
    • this includes the 1.5% pay reduction represented by the unpaid PD days
  • Teacher wages for this period increase 5.5% to 7.5% more than inflation
  • Young teachers continue to receive annual increases based on the salary grid


In addition to salary, teachers in Ontario benefit from the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. Combined with their contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, teachers put aside about 12.4% of their pay towards their Pension. Teachers enjoy significantly better retirement security than most Ontarians:

  • The typical teacher retires at 58 with a basic pension of an average $46,000/yr
  • At 65, their total pension including Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security averages $59,000/yr
  • This is more than the total earnings of 75% of working Ontarians
  • This is significantly more than the total retirement income of most Ontarians
    • The average retired female has total retirement income of $31,800/yr
    • The average retired male has total retirement income of $41,200/yr
    • Half of retired women have total retirement income of $22,000/yr or less
    • Half of retired men have total retirement income of $30,700/yr or less


A major issue in dispute has been sick days. Under previous contracts:

  • Teachers could take up to 20 sick days each year with full pay
    • The Employment Standards Act of Ontario requires most employers to allow up to ten days of unpaid sick leave
  • Up to 200 unused sick days could be paid out at retirement as a retirement gratuity typically worth about $46,000 and based on a teacher's pay rate at retirement
  • The total cost of this future liability is more than $1.7 billion according to the Ministry of Education

The Government proposed that the system of accumulating unused sick days be ended. Entitlements already accumulated, in most cases for those with ten or more years of service, would be frozen meaning nobody would lose what they have currently banked. In addition, the value of the accumulated sick days would be determined based upon current levels of pay rather than based on pay at the time of retirement.

OECTA agreed to this proposal but ETFO and OSSTF did not.

Related to this issue is the issue of sick days that are used prior to retirement. The Government proposed:

  • 6 days at full pay
  • 120 days at 2/3 pay in a new short-term disability plan

The OECTA negotiated and settled for:

  • 10 days at full pay
  • 120 days at 2/3 pay
  • Enhanced benefits for maternity leave

During negotiations, OSSTF suggested it run certain benefit plans which it claimed would save approximately $400 million for the Province which sought to save $1.7 billion. This OECTA model saves the Government approximately $1.1 billion by avoiding future costs.

The OECTA contract has become the terms for Bill 115.


At the end of August 2012, OSSTF, ETFO, CUPE and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association announced that they would challenge Bill 115 and argue in the Courts that it violates the right to meaningful collective bargaining. It is the claim of these Unions that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects this right.

Legal opinion on this matter differs and it will probably take years before this issue makes its way through the Courts. In 2011, sections of a British Columbia law from 2002 were ruled unconstitutional. This case is seen by many as a supporting precedent in the case for teachers' Unions in Ontario. While a nine-year timeline is not expected, it is clear that resolution of the legal issues will not be quick:

  • The claim that Bill 115 is a violation of fundamental rights has been the focus of the Unions’ complaints. The root issue will be whether or not a good faith effort was made to actually negotiate before resorting to imposing contracts

  • The fact that Unions representing 30% of teachers, 100% of support workers, and the OSSTF in a number of local cases were able to reach negotiated settlements may be central to how this issue is resolved. The additional fact that ETFO does not appear to have ever put any offer forward may also be a significant fact in the ultimate decision of the Courts

This is not to say that there is no merit in their challenge:

  • Bill 115 gives the Government sweeping powers and removes the right to have the Bill reviewed by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The unprecedented nature of the Bill has been alarming to many

  • Fundamentally, Bill 115 required that negotiations essentially arrive at a predetermined result – namely terms similar to those agreed upon by OECTA. How a negotiation can be meaningful when the result is mandated is a fair question

In the end, it is the children who are in the cross-fire of this dispute. It is each party's responsibility – the Government of Ontario, ETFO, and OSSTF – to resolve this issue to ensure that students are indeed put first.

E.Stephen Johnson
©2013 SayItCanada.ca. All rights reserved.


On TUESDAY, JANUARY 15, 2013 at 10:10am EST from TORONTO, ON

Megan – Really liked it. Nice to see the facts written down in one place!

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