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Matthew Lau: If the goal is to have teachers paid fairly, the last thing we want is powerful unions

Matthew Lau: If the goal is to have teachers paid fairly, the last thing we want is powerful unions

By Matthew Lau

Ontario’s teachers’ unions are in a state of discontent. This is their normal state and cannot be altered, history has shown, by changes in premier, more funding from taxpayers, increased hiring of staff, better benefits, nor even $2.5 million from Kathleen Wynne’s government to fund the teachers’ bargaining and pizza costs in 2015. A union work-to-rule campaign has begun as the teachers, in protest against government plans for larger class sizes and insufficient salary increases, are now refusing to complete such administrative tasks as providing comments on students’ report cards.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and the union leaders suffer from exactly the same level of ignorance as Doug Ford

It is always possible, of course, that the teachers have legitimate grievances. What is the appropriate number of students per class? Would paying teachers more, by improving the quality of educational instruction, be worth the higher costs to taxpayers? The unions might argue that on both these questions, Premier Doug Ford hasn’t got a clue. And they would be right. But, let me hasten to point out, neither do NDP Leader Andrea Horwath nor the union leaders. They suffer from exactly the same level of ignorance as Ford.

Approximately 94 per cent of Ontario students go to government-run schools. As long as we have a government-monopoly school system with almost no competition and without real market prices, the government is spending money and delivering education blindly. It has no way of knowing, without being guided by prices and demand, if the benefits of increasing education spending exceed the costs. Nor would government know where its spending produces the most value: should schools hire more teachers, for instance, or buy more computers instead?

In a competitive market, such questions are more easily settled. If the benefits of smaller class sizes, measured by the willingness of families to pay for them, exceed the costs, then schools with smaller class sizes would be the most profitable. Families would avoid sending their children to schools with class sizes that are too large, forcing these schools to hire more teachers if they want to attract enough students to continue operations. Conversely, some schools might have classes that are too small; costing too much to run, such schools would be forced to make classes bigger or eventually close.

In fact, what’s most likely is that, since some Ontarians value smaller class sizes and would be willing to pay more, while others are skeptical of the benefits of smaller classes and would rather pay less, in a competitive market there would be some schools with smaller classes and other schools with larger classes. This highlights another problem with the current monopoly: a one-size-fits-all government solution cannot effectively serve a diverse population.

People have differing preferences and differing circumstances. Some people drink a small McDonald’s coffee every morning. Others are willing to pay more and get the extra-large instead. Should the government therefore take the average and decide that everybody gets the medium? Surely not. You might say that coffee and classroom choices shouldn’t be compared. And you’re right: classroom choice is much more important. But if government isn’t competent to legislate our coffee purchases, why would we let it dictate something as important as appropriate class size?

The issue of teacher salaries is similar to that of class sizes. Whether teachers are paid fairly for their output is much more easily determined in a competitive market. Schools that continually overpaid teachers would lose money and be forced to either cut salaries or close down. Schools that continually underpaid teachers would be unable to attract enough qualified staff to continue operations.

One thing is certain: if the goal is to have teachers paid fairly, the last thing we should want is powerful unions. Teachers, like other workers, should be paid the value of their productive output. But teachers’ unions ensure that what a teacher is paid has little or nothing to do with his or her productive output, since compensation is instead determined by seniority. Moreover, in the absence of market prices, there is no good way to determine what a teacher’s productive output actually is, since there is no way to measure how much consumers — families with school-age children — are willing to pay for a teacher’s services.

The way to have class sizes that best serve Ontarians and improve fairness for teachers is to have a competitive private market instead of a government-monopoly system. If there are concerns this would only serve the interests of rich Ontarians, the government could issue vouchers to ensure that all families could afford a minimum level of schooling. Having broken the monopoly we could then disband the unions — though I suspect that would not reduce union leaders’ agitation and discontent.

Matthew Lau is a Toronto writer.

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