Canadian education is lurching into an era of austerity, as British Columbia's teachers walk off the job and Ontario feuds with its educators over a new hard-line stand on compensation.
Teachers' unions in both provinces have scorned calls for wage freezes to help curb rising education costs and manage deficits. In both cases, governments contend that restraint is non-negotiable – and savings must either come from teachers' pockets or from programs, supplies and job cuts.
Teacher and staff costs consume as much as 85 per cent of education budgets in some provinces, and cash-strapped governments are eyeing both immediate and future contracts.
Today's walkout in B.C. follows months of conflict between the British Columbia Teachers' Federation and the province over wage and other issues. The government insists a teachers' contract must meet a "net-zero mandate," but B.C. kindergarten teacher Heather Mulholland says the government is battering an already bruised and underfunded system. She plans to march Monday, the first day of a three-day demonstration, her toddler son in tow.
"This is his education, "Ms. Mulholland said Sunday, referring to her 16-month-old son. "I need to stand up for the kids in my classroom but I also need to stand up for his future, too."
The walkout is proving a headache for parents scrambling to book day care. "The logistics and the cost are the biggest concerns for me," said Laurel MacLean, a Vancouver mother of two school-aged children for whom she's had to arrange paid daycare this week.
And it marks another milestone in the notoriously rocky relationship between teachers and government in B.C., where the two sides have managed to negotiate only one contract since provincewide bargaining was introduced in 1994.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has also taken a hard line on compensation. As ways to "protect the classroom," he is seeking a salary and pay-scale freeze for Ontario teachers until 2014 and ending benefits such as sick days that can be banked and cashed out at retirement.
"We can protect our class sizes, we can protect full-day kindergarten and we can also protect jobs," Mr. McGuinty said last week. "But it does require that we put in place the kind of salary freeze that we have proposed to teachers."
Ontario teacher unions called the proposal "offensive" and an "unprecedented attack," while the Canadian Teachers' Federation suggested the government is offering a false choice.
"I don't think it's fair. It's a rather simplistic look at things," CTF president Paul Taillefer said. "People seem to have forgotten the benefits of progressive taxation."
Universities and colleges are facing a similar austerity drive. Nova Scotia's universities will receive 3 per cent less funding this year, and are bracing for more cuts to come. Ontario's institutions will be expected to restrain cost increases to around 1.5 per cent, down from 4 to 6 per cent in recent years. And Quebec is reeling as thousands of students walk out of classes to protest against tuition hikes designed to help pay for a budget that would inject funds into a cash-starved system.
The canary in the educational coal mine may have been Saskatchewan. Teachers there wanted a 16-per-cent pay raise over three years. But even with the economy booming, the government wrestled increases down to 5.5 per cent over three years, plus some market adjustments.
Alberta is bucking the trend. When Premier Alison Redford took office last fall, she kept a campaign promise to hire more teachers by restoring more than $100-million in cuts made by her predecessor. She followed that in last month's provincial budget with a further 3.4-per-cent rise in education funding to $6.2-billion, while postsecondary funding was hiked 2.7 per cent to almost $2.9-billion, which included millions in financial aid for students.
Ms. Mulholland, who recently returned to work after a maternity leave, worries that a proposed education bill in B.C. would mean further cuts to classroom services, especially for students who have special needs.
Cheryl Angst, a Port Coquitlam teacher, has similar concerns, saying the number of special-needs students in her classroom has increased even as services to help them have dwindled.
"There has not been a reduction in my overall class to meet the additional needs of those students," Ms. Angst said in an interview on Friday. "They have an [individual education plan]for a reason – they need extra help."
With reports from Dawn Walton and Karen Howlett