Teacher’s On Strike – The Heart of the Issue

On February 4, teachers in several districts of the Alberta region will strike unless their demands for increased funding are met. If this occurs, not only children will suffer, but parents and communities as well. With children out of school, many working parents will have to stay at home until the strike is over. If it lasts very long, some may lose their jobs, putting their family at a financial disadvantage. Statistics show also that most youth crime occurs on weekdays prior to 4:00, when children are out of school and parents are not home. Should a teacher strike occur, it is likely that communities will suffer an increase in property damage and petty crime at the hands of teens and pre-teens who have nothing better to do. There was a teacher’s strike only a few years ago in Calgary, and our community was like a zoo with the hundreds of aimless and restless kids milling about all day, making a tremendous amount of noise and getting to mischief. It is tempting to blame the parents when this occurs, but what can they do? Parents have to work, especially when they have multiple children to support, and many rely on the school system to be watching their children during the normal working week.

Schools not only educate children, but also provide an essential service to parents and communities by keeping kids safe, contained, and under close watch. Without this service, few families could have two working parents, although two incomes are vital to many middle and lower class homes. Without school, single parents could not work at all. Keeping kids in school during the day benefits everyone – so much so that teaching should be deemed a vital service. Just as police officers and doctors cannot walk out on their jobs, neither should we permit teachers to strike. The overall costs of a teacher’s strike in terms of lost jobs, time off of work, increased crime, and the interruption of children’s educations are difficult to calculate. So, while Learning Minister Lyle Oberg (http://www2.alberta.com/news/fs.cfm?source_id=&id=1054672) assures us that the strike will not be allowed to drag on for very long, I feel that deeming teachers an essential service and disallowing them to strike would be more appropriate. That is not to say that teachers should not be allowed to take job action and demand more money. I do question, however, the reasons that teachers repeatedly cite for taking such action. Clearly the primary issue is wages, but still teachers often insist that large class sizes are their greatest concern. I have been suspicious of this claim, as I recall my classes back in the 70’s were as large or larger than many of those cited today. Occasional claims of classes containing 35-40 children sounded like aberrations. Today there is some proof to back this up.

The Alberta Government’s recent province-wide survey (http://www.gov.ab.ca/acn/200201/11810.html) of more than 1,100 kindergarten and elementary schools found an average of 19.7 students per class in kindergarten and 23.6 in grades 1 to 6.” That seemed low to me, so I dug out my old class pictures from Kindergarten to grade six and counted heads (I assumed that all children were present on the day the pictures were taken, but in reality usually a couple were missing). My Kindergarten class had 24 children (5 above today’s average), while my classes in grades 1-6 ranged from 27-30 students (for 4 years there were 28. I attended Ogden Elementary School in Calgary for all seven years. The survey also showed that there are an average of 4.6 teaching assistants in each elementary school, while I don’t remember their being any assistants when I was in school. I recall how I feared being asked to read to my class when the teacher was away making copies.

It is tempting to think that the survey data is skewed by smaller, rural schools, but the data shows that class sizes in urban and rural schools are similar – urban kindergartens have an average of 19.9 students, while rural kindergartens have 19.3. In grades 1-6, urban schools have 22.9 per class, and rural schools have 22.7. Classes with 30 or more (http://www.gov.ab.ca/acn/images/2002/102/11810-2.pdf) students do exist, but make up only 6% of the total classes. 94% fall between 10 and 29 students. Despite this, the Alberta Teachers Union ( target=”_blank”>http://canada.com/news/story.asp?id={C6D6E521-5B47-4D6E-A29C-09CBEAE1A3EE}) claims that “the strike is mainly about money, although many teachers are upset over crowded classrooms.”

Given that the class size issue does not appear to have much validity, this strike is about money. This is a legitimate concern. I dislike, though, that teachers are framing their budgetary demands in a way that makes them seem insignificant. The Alberta teachers Association FAQ (http://www.teachers.ab.ca/what/budget_issues/faqs.htm#2) says “less than an additional $1.30 per student per day would” cover the costs of increasing teachers salaries 12.3% to 15.7% as well as improving classroom conditions for all students.

Stated this way, the cost sounds very low, but to phrase yearly budgeting demands in terms of the daily cost per student is misleading. Teachers hope that we will not do the math, and they also make it hard to calculate. It is not made clear if this amount is based on $1.30 for every day of the year (and some schools now have classes year round), or for each school day in a standard curriculum. Even if you use the smaller figure, however, the amount is staggering. According to the 2001/2002 School Year Operating Schedule (http://ednet.edc.gov.ab.ca/parents/syos/Calgary.pdf) most schools hold classes for 198.5-200 days of the year. To use 99 school days per student (there are 253779 students in Alberta elementary schools), results in a total of $65,652,627.30! This is not the total educational budget, but rather an increase above current funding. This amount also only applies only to elementary schools as I have not factored in junior high and high school students. If all students are to be funded at this level, the number would be perhaps doubled.

This amount may be reasonable. Teachers are skilled professionals who perform a vital job and their wages should reflect this. Increased educational funding would not only benefit our children, but our whole society, as our ability to compete in the new world economy demands that our people be strong, healthy, and highly educated. What I disagree with, however, is how teachers are trying to obscure the size of their demands. If they feel that the Alberta students and teachers legitimately require another $120 million dollars a year, then they should be prepared to go to the public with this figure and justify why it is needed.

The issue of class sizes is getting old, and harder to support. There are other issues that are more powerful, such as school closures, program cuts, and the demise of many arts and music programs. To ask people for ‘only’ another $1.30 per student per year is intentionally misleading. Fund raising organizations like the Christian Children’s Fund frame their needs in this way, to make them seem very small. The teachers union is not a fund raising organization, however, and they should not be trying to slip large demands past an unsuspecting public. No matter how you look at it, their demands are huge. If they are legitimate, then we all need to be aware of the amount of money we are talking about, and know why we are spending it. Teachers cling to the issue of class sizes because it makes it seem like they are more concerned about students than their salaries. It also frightens parents who fear that their children are not being properly educated. If the strike is about teacher’s salaries, they should stick to that issue, and stop adding additional worries to parents’ lives. Nurses have caused the same fear by claiming that their strikes have been about poor patient care, when salaries have later emerged as the primary issue. Once nurses have secured a salary increase, they have returned to work despite the fact that little was done about patient services.

I understand the plight of teachers and nurses. Both, are predominantly women’s occupations, and both are woefully underpaid compared to male-dominated professions that require similar training and dedication. I support teacher’s demands for higher salaries, but I think they would get much further with their demands if they laid it all on the line, told us how much they are making, and compared that amount with other professions requiring a similar level of training and education. I do not, however, feel that teachers should have the right to strike, as the costs to all of the citizens of Alberta are too great, and outweigh the rights of any single group of workers.