Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Seven – What do the Parties Have Planned for Teachers?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform, school autonomy ,the abolition of school boards , reducing the dropout rate and private school subsidies. This article will examine what the parties have in store for the province’s teachers.

Right now across North America there is a well financed war being waged against teachers and their unions. The proponents of this war argue that the source of poor student achievement is too many lazy or incompetent teachers with too much job security. The solution they propose is usually a combination of taking away the job security and collective bargaining rights of teachers along with some form of merit pay scheme. In the US this is being achieved through the closing of public schools and the opening of semi-private charter schools (staffed by non-unionized teachers) in their place. This is the vision of school reform promoted by those referred to as “corporate education reformers” through slickly produced propaganda films such as “Waiting for Superman” and the soon to be released “Won’t Back Down”.

The first problem with this narrative is that it is extremely insulting to the vast majority of teachers who are neither lazy nor incompetent and who in fact donate untold hours of unpaid work on their evenings and weekends to help their students succeed.

The more serious problem with this narrative from a policy perspective, is that it is directly contradicted by the available evidence. Other than class size, the amount of experience possessed by teachers is one of the few factors that have been shown by a wide body of evidence to be correlated positively with increased student success. Not surprisingly then, since unions protect the job security and working conditions of teachers, improved student success is also correlated with rates of unionization. The fact that a teacher’s working conditions happen also to be the student’s learning conditions goes a long way in explaining this. While it is true that correlation is not necessarily an indication of causation, those advocating to improve schools by attacking teachers unions need to explain why it is that students in regions without teachers unions do consistently worse in terms of achievement than students in regions where teachers are unionized.

Corporate education reformers are also lacking credible evidence on the question of merit pay. After over 10 years of several US states experimenting extensively with such merit pay schemes, the evidence is mounting that merit pay does not improve student achievement. Such results add to existing concerns that merit pay schemes are fundamentally based on the wrong values and reduce the art of teaching to nothing more than preparing students for standardized tests.

While the agenda to attack teachers unions is most advanced in the United States, a number of key members of Quebec’s political class unfortunately seem intent on following the American example. The 2005 publication of the manifesto “Pour un Quebec Lucide” served as a rallying cry for those advocating a complete right-wing makeover for Quebec. Signed by such notable Quebec figures as Lucien Bouchard and La Presse’s André Pratt, the manifesto called for austere cuts to social spending, breaking the power of Quebec’s unions, cuts to progressive income taxes and increases to user-fees for health care, education and electricity.  It represented a desire to steer Quebec sharply away from the more egalitarian social vision of the Quiet Revolution and towards a Quebec where the forces of global capitalism are left unhindered by state intervention. Fortunately, a 2007 CROP poll found that the majority of Quebecers were not in agreement with these proposals. Nonetheless, this remains one of the most influential political documents in Quebec’s recent history.

Were such a right-wing makeover of Quebec to occur, it is important to consider the context in which it would be occurring. Currently Quebec is doing a terrible job retaining its teachers. They are on average younger and less experienced than teachers in the rest of Canada. Perhaps not coincidentally, Quebec teachers are paid the lowest salaries in Canada. They also have some of the most difficult working conditions. In 2006 the CBC reported that 31% of teachers working for English school boards who went on long-term disability did so for reasons related to stress and burn-out. Clearly government is not doing enough to provide teachers the time and resources they need in order to overcome the enormous challenges they face. If Quebec is to do a better job retaining its teachers, it first has to stop burning them out. Increasing teacher salaries to the point that they keep up with inflation, let alone the Canadian average, would also be a step in the right direction. Given the present context for teachers in Quebec, it is hard to imagine how teacher retention could possibly be improved by attacks on the very organizations that protect their salaries and working conditions.

Parti Liberal du Quebec (PLQ)

The Charest government has demonstrated a consistent attitude of callous heavy-handed paternalism and disrespect when dealing with the provinces teachers and other public sector workers. In 2005 it passed legislation to force a half million public sector employees back-to-work with a set of working conditions that had been dictated by government and that, for teachers, did not address the significant lack of resources for students with special needs.

Going into the last round of negotiations, public sector employees had seen their real wages eroded by 10.5 percent in the 12 preceding years. Prior to the negotiations, the Common Front pointed out that “for comparable jobs, the wages of government employees have fallen 8.7 percent behind other Quebec workers”. Seeing that economic conditions were not favourable to their bargaining position and knowing Charest’s tendency to use back-to-work legislation, public sector unions recommended that their members accept a deal that would likely cause the continued erosion of their real wages. The deal contains a core guaranteed average annual increase of 1.2 percent and a number of subsequent increases that are triggered by growth in the provinces nominal GDP. However, even if all of these increases are triggered, the only way public sector employees will come out ahead in terms of their real inflation-adjusted wages is if inflation averages less than about 1.7 percent over the course of the contract. This seems like a highly unlikely scenario given that Statistics Canada’s inflation figures show that between October 2010 and October 2011 inflation in Quebec averaged 3.3 percent.

Since the Liberal platform focuses only on deficit reduction without any mention of reinvesting in education, it seems reasonable to conclude that should the Liberals win the next election, Quebec’s teachers will continue to have the worst working conditions and lowest pay of any teachers in Canada.

Parti Quebecois (PQ)

If the wages of Quebec’s public sector employees have kept up neither with inflation nor with the wages of teachers in other provinces, it is historically as much the fault of the Parti Quebecois as Jean Charest’s Liberals. Despite the English media’s fondness for stating that the PQ is controlled by Quebec’s unions, the two parties have functioned as a kind of tag team in keeping down the wages of Quebec’s public sector employees. In her recent debate with Francois Legault, PQ leader Pauline Marois signaled that she was ready for the next tag. In response to Legault’s proposal to increase the wages of teachers, Marois insisted that this was not the course the PQ intended to take if elected. Rather the PQ intended to make investments to improve the working conditions of teachers. While most teachers would probably agree that salary increases are a secondary priority to desperately needed investments in working conditions, the constant erosion of public sector wages has to end somewhere if the quality of public services is to be protected.

Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ)

Although Francois Legault is trying very hard to present himself as the ‘education candidate’ in this election, there is probably no candidate that is more threatening to the interests of teachers than Legault. While Legault seems to have dropped his previous fondness for merit-pay schemes, the influence of the American corporate education reform agenda is still clearly present in his proposed policies. The CAQ platform begins its section dealing with the teaching profession by echoing the same narrative about incompetent unmotivated teachers that is so popular amongst corporate education reformers south of the border. Then, after paying lip service to the success of Finland, it proposes a set of policies that will unquestionably move Quebec further away from the Finnish model; a model that actually seems to value and respect teachers.

While Legault is promising to increase the wages of all teachers, with a particular focus on wage increases for those working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, teachers need to be aware that this is not an act of generosity from Legault. Behind this promise lies a sinister quid quo pro. The CAQ’s platform makes vague reference to establishing “measures to evaluate the overall performance of teachers” and to reassessing “the rules governing the granting of tenure for teachers”.

However, in its policy document “To Be Endowed with One of the Best Education Systems in the World by 2020the CAQ provides a far more detailed description of its plan. With respect to evaluating teachers, the document states “The evaluation of the teaching staff would be done twice during the school year by the school administrator and would address many elements, including the students’ success rate”. Should a teacher fail a second evaluation following remedial action, “the teacher would be relieved of his/her duties”.

This proposal is highly problematic for several reasons. Firstly it gives principals the power to be judge, jury and executioner without any indication of an appeals process for teachers. This is creating a situation ripe for abuse of power. Secondly, like teachers, most public school principals are already extremely over-worked. It is difficult to imagine where principals would find the time to engage in a serious process of evaluating each and every teacher twice a year while managing all of their other duties, particularly in a scenario where principals are shouldered with extra administrative duties due to the abolition of school boards.

With respect to the issue of tenure, the CAQ document states that the party’s intention is to seek a “new contract” with teachers; one that replaces the concept of tenure with “three-to-five year contracts”. This will send an immediate chill throughout the teaching profession. However, ultimately it is students who will pay for such policies. Not only because it will drive experienced teachers out of the profession but also because tenure plays an extremely important role in allowing teachers to be fearless advocates for individual students and for the public education system as a whole. If teachers have to be constantly worried about losing their job because of an arbitrary decision by their principal, this role of teachers as impassioned advocates for our children will be a thing of the past. There will be no one pointing out the lack of resources for needy students or the most recent health and safety violations. All will sing from the principals songbook because doing otherwise might cost one one’s job.

Finally, the CAQ is also proposing to create a new professional college for teachers. This college would be responsible for “setting the conditions for access to the profession, continuing education requirements, standards for teacher evaluation, as well as the ethical standards applicable to them”. It is extremely difficult to take Francois Legault’s claims to want to make teachers feel more valued seriously when he is proposing something that was rejected by over 95 percent of Quebec’s teachers in a referendum, as recently as 2004.

Quebec Solidaire (QS)

Following the publication of “Pour un Quebec Lucide”, a group composed of prominent Quebec artists, ecologists, academics and activists produced a counter manifesto entitled “Pour un Quebec Solidaire”. Amongst this group’s signators were the two co-spokespersons of Quebec Solidaire, Francoise David and Amir Khadir. This counter-manifesto laid out a different vision for Quebec’s future; one based on principals of participatory democracy, environmental sustainability and social justice. Reinvigorated public services were a central element of this vision.

One finds these same values on display in Quebec Solidaire’s plan for teachers. Quebec Solidaire’s platform calls for the kinds of changes to our working conditions that we as teachers have been demanding for years; reduced class size, more resources, more professional support staff. Its economic plan commits to hiring 4200 new employees in the education sector. Its party program outlines a vision for Quebec’s schools that sees teachers not just as employees but as key players within the school’s democratic management structures. While the other parties seem to want to dictate what’s best for teachers, QS sincerely wants to empower teachers by making them co-managers, along with parents and administrators, of Quebec’s schools.

Although, QS does not promise any immediate salary increases for teachers, its program commits a QS government to being “responsive to the demands of public sector workers to improve their working conditions, wages and benefits”.

While Legault pays lip service to the Finnish model, Quebec Solidaire proposes concrete measures to implement one of its key elements: teachers that feel supported, empowered and respected!

Option Nationale (ON)

The only item in the Option Nationale platform related directly to the teaching profession is a commitment to “create a professional code of ethics for teachers that is to be included in the Act on Public Education, to ensure the quality of education in Quebec”. It would be interesting to know what problems ON thinks would be addressed by such a code.

Parti Vert du Quebec (PVQ)

The Green Party platform does not contain any items dealing specifically with the teaching profession.

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