A response to Jim Wilson’s letter “Education won’t be able to escape budget belt-tightening”

By Robert Green

On June 13th the Gazette published a letter entitled “Education won’t be able to escape budget belt-tightening” by Jim Wilson. The letter was an attack on my recent op-ed about the injustice of the Liberal government’s austerity measures for education. As Mr Wilson is a well known commentator on Quebec’s English school system whose writing has been often published on this blog, I feel it is important to publicly respond.

The whole reason I submit articles to the Gazette is to stir up public debate. Though I strongly disagree with the positions Mr Wilson takes in his letter, I am more than happy to debate these issues with him. I hope this exchange of ideas will be interesting and informative for readers.

As Mr Wilson’s letter raises a number of points and poses a number of questions, I will deal with them one paragraph at a time.

Robert Green makes one point that I fully support: that public funds should not be used to support private schools. However, he fails in his principal arguments that the budget means that “the neediest students are asked to make serious sacrifices” and that cutting the private-school subsidies would do much to remedy the overall financial situation.

Actually my principal argument was not about remedying the province’s overall financial situation so much as it was about the injustice of imposing austerity on the public education system while leaving generous subsidies for the rich to attend private schools untouched. I’m surprised that someone who claims to oppose public subsidies for private schools doesn’t share my outrage over this blatant injustice.

A secondary point of my op-ed was to show that there is no good reason to exempt private school subsidies from sharing in the burden of austerity. The private schools claim these subsidies save the system money. However, this is a highly questionable claim due to the other forms of government support private schools receive (listed in my article) in addition to the 60% tuition subsidy. While the FAE’s claim that there are significant savings to achieve by integrating private school students into the public system may also be somewhat questionable, even if this reintegration is cost neutral it is still extremely worthwhile as it will eliminate the significant social costs associated with an education system that is segregated along class lines.

It is true that Quebec‘s teachers are the country’s lowest paid, but that harks back more than 30 years, when salaries were slashed by the PQ government, never to recover. Of course, the teachers’ own union leaders, rather than repudiating such a party, actually joined its ranks and fought for its election.

Yes it harks back that far but over the last 30 years it has been made significantly worse by Liberal and PQ governments alike. The gap between the pay of teachers in Quebec compared to that of teachers in the rest of Canada has been steadily growing.

Green suggests that poor working conditions mean that Quebec teachers are younger and less experienced than their counterparts in other provinces. In fact, that is essentially a demographic outcome, brought about by Quebec’s baby boom having produced a need for teachers in the 1960s and ’70s. There was a paucity of jobs due to the birthrate decline of later decades. Bill 101 exacerbated this problem for the English sector. Jobs only appeared when many of those hired in the “boom” period took retirement after 35 years, replaced by new teachers, most of whom have less than 10 years experience. No budget can address that issue.

It is not merely a demographic issue. Other provinces experienced baby booms at the same time and their teachers are not as young as Quebec’s. At least part of what explains this is a high rate of burn-out. In 2006 CBC reported that one in three teachers in Quebec’s English system had left work due to stress related illness. In 2009 it reported that there had been a 10 percent increase in the use of long-term medical leave compared to five years earlier. The question my op-ed is posing is how much further are we prepared to go as a society in degrading this profession. When a full fifty percent are having to leave work for stress related illness, would Mr Wilson then recognize there’s a problem? Or would he suggest that we shouldn’t worry because there is an army of young inexperienced teachers ready to replace them…

Green should not be concerned about attracting individuals to teaching; there are very few openings. A board official recently told me there were 500 applicants at his board, but only a fraction of them would even be interviewed.

We as a society should all be concerned about attracting and retaining quality individuals into the teaching profession. A teacher’s years of experience is one of the few factors that has been identified as making significant improvements to student achievement. I would think that a former teachers union president such as Mr Wilson would be well versed in this research. If Mr Wilson wants to see what kind of quality of education one ends up with when teachers are viewed as expendable and easily replaceable by inexperienced young graduates just take a look at the disaster that is currently unfolding in the US education system.

Quebec is groaning under its bureaucratic weight. So I am surprised that Green bemoans, rather than applauds, any potential cut to administration. He makes no suggestion that we amalgamate boards to reduce expenditures, nor does he explain how administrative cuts affect the classroom. Class sizes remains as they are, and I hear no mention of slashing support for special needs. He points to the private system as being “elitist,” yet ignores his own board’s practice of operating its own “elite” schools.

Mr Wilson seems to have great faith in the government's aim.

Mr Wilson seems to have great faith in the government’s aim.

I do not deny that there is waste within the school boards. However, I completely reject the notion that arbitrary government cuts will eliminate that waste. What is far more likely is that the waste will remain and the cuts will in some way be put on the backs of students and school employees. Mr Wilson is extremely naive to suggest otherwise.

It is not up to me to demonstrate that these cuts will hurt students. The onus is on government to demonstrate that cuts won’t hurt students and thus far the government has done no such thing. Neoliberal governments always claim that their budget cuts won’t affect frontline services. Mr Wilson have we not learned better than to believe them? The rumour swirling around my school is that secretaries, lab techs, programmers and librarians will be hit by these cuts. If this turns out to be true, do you really think this won’t affect students?

As I wrote about in the Gazette back in April, if there is trimming of bureaucracy that must be done, it should not be done arbitrarily but by targeting specific things of questionable value such as the bureaucracy associated with standardized ministry exams. Such a targeted approach is the only way to ensure that cuts aren’t passed on to students.

It would have been nice if Mr Wilson had taken this article into consideration before publicly accusing me of “bemoaning” efforts to reduce bureaucracy. Similarly, before publicly accusing me of “ignoring” the elite schools within my own school board, it would have been nice if Mr Wilson had bothered to consult some of the other op-eds I had previously published in the Gazette. Had he done so he would see that Quebec’s “four-tiered education system” is a topic I have been quite vocal about.

My own budget is squeezed, too. Notwithstanding the decline in school enrollment, I continue to pay ever-increasing school taxes, something that last year was publicly advocated by the president of his provincial union. Does Green support that stance? Education takes a large portion of the overall taxes, so it seems inevitable that it must shoulder part of the burden. I have yet to hear how we solve Quebec’s economic mess in a way that leaves education untouched.

In this passage we really see the extent to which Mr Wilson has drunk the neoliberal koolaid. He seems to have bought the line, repeated ad nauseam in the mainstream media, that if governments have deficits, this is because of out-of-control spending. According to this logic it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest then that public services like education “must shoulder part of the burden”.

The problem with this logic is that it is based on the false premise that our current deficit is the result of out-of-control spending. It isn’t. It is the result of out-of-control tax cutting in the first decade of the 2000’s. As IRIS has documented, between 2000 and 2008 Liberal and PQ governments combined for about 4 billion in tax cuts which primarily benefited the wealthiest members of society, corporations and banks. That amounts to 24 billion removed from Quebec’s public coffers since 2008. Is it any wonder we are now facing a structural deficit?

The central issue facing Quebec is that someone has to pay for these tax cuts. While Mr Wilson believes that the public school system “must shoulder the burden”, I believe the burden should be shouldered by those who created it; the rich.

Mr Wilson needs to consider the fact that when it comes to eliminating government deficits there is more than one way to skin a cat. There are ways to eliminate deficits that widen inequality by making the poor shoulder the burden through degraded public services. And there are also ways to eliminate deficits that have the added bonus of achieving the inherently beneficial goal of a more equal society by requiring those with plenty to contribute more. Given the growing amount of research demonstrating the extent to which more equal societies are happier, healthier, better educated and more prosperous why would we ever want to act in a way that widens inequality? This is exactly what the Leitão budget does and exactly what Mr Wilson advocates when he suggests that it is appropriate to balance the province’s books with cuts to public services.

As a former teachers union president Mr Wilson should know full well that over the years Quebec’s public sector employees have done more than their fare share to help the province keep its books balanced. Is it not time now for those at the top who have enjoyed such generous tax cuts to do their part? Why is it that over the last 20 years it is only those on the bottom that have had to pay for government deficits?

Mr Wilson presents this as a false choice between spending cuts that hurt schools and increases to school taxes that hurt the middle class. In doing so he is operating squarely within the logic of neoliberalism. However there are many other options that he ignores. In addition to rolling back the tax-cuts that the wealthy enjoyed from 2000 to 2008 governments could be doing much more to root out the corruption that siphons billions out of Quebec’s public coffers and to stop the flight of capital to off-shore tax havens. Each of these things are possible and each has the potential to make massive improvements to the state of Quebec’s public finances. The only thing that is lacking is political will.

Mr Wilson, rather than affirming the Couillard government’s attempt to widen inequality and redistribute Quebec’s wealth upward should we not be speaking out against this, exposing the illegitimacy of calls to cut public services and advocating for a more equal society where the wealthy pay their fare share?

See Mr Wilson’s response to this in the comments section below

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3 Comments to “A response to Jim Wilson’s letter “Education won’t be able to escape budget belt-tightening””

  1. Mr Wilson submitted the following response to this article:

    Thank you for providing me an opportunity to respond to your recent comments which ran for several pages.

    I suppose that I should feel flattered that my short letter to the Gazette provoked you to spend so much time and effort in developing your response, which also included your amateur analysis of my political views ,and, for good measure added a cartoon; a word on that later.

    Let us not forget that your original article focused on the recent budget. I have no difficulty in supporting an end to private school subsidies, but ending those requires a sensible phased in reduction over a number of years. Cutting part of the subsidy in this budget might have provided a notice of intent, but that hardly means that more funds would have gone into the public schools coffers, and that the neediest students would receive greater support.

    Regarding teacher salaries, the P.Q. has by far been the biggest villain. I am no fan of any major provincial party, but I am still astonished when trying to understand, how a party which reneged on a written contract, slashed salaries and pensions can be supported by union leaders and their executive staff. The contracts since the disastrous Levesque era have done little to offset those cuts; did you realistically think that this budget would do much to reverse the trend?

    As a reminder, you stated that ‘boards are cut to the bone’ –are you joking? Some people who had read your article thought that you were an apologist for the boards and/or seeking an administrative job. I do not know, nor care. Board cuts could be envisaged without touching the classroom. In fact and fairness, you now agree that ‘there is waste within the school boards’ and it is true that money can be diverted. Some years back, funds, earmarked for the hiring of resource teachers, were used by your board, at your union’s urging, to provide kindergarten teachers with more release time. So much for fighting for more special needs help!!

    Maybe you could change your cartoon, and put the boards, as a target. I would be happy to be considered as the knife thrower, but why not depict yourself as a person who attacks the boards? However, the real challenge is demography and its implications. Let us look at the facts .Firstly, in the 1950’s, Quebec had one of the highest birthrates in the Western world; 3.8 children for each woman of childbearing age. By the 1980’s that had plummeted to one of the lowest at 1.6. Secondly, in the fifties, Quebec’s population also increased due to migration patterns, whereas by the eighties these patterns were reversed. Bill 101, as well as curtailing English enrollment, also spurred the greatest internal migration in Canadian history; people, companies, jobs, taxes headed west. Even if you teach the history course, you may not know about this exodus, according to the politically correct curriculum it never seemed to have happened. The two combined demographic factors led, and continue to lead, to a decline in school populations, most particularly in the English sector.

    Some years back, when teaching jobs were also difficult to find, so much so, that in 1992, I signed a local arrangement, a.k.a. the priority pool, which to a degree, produced a modicum of fairness in the hiring process. Board hiring was a game of nepotism, , where it appears that only the administrators’ relatives were invited to play. There may be additional practices at your board, where only cronies of the union president obtain a school transfer. Many would find your remarks that teachers are ‘replaced by inexperienced young graduates’ as a tad insulting. There is a Canada –wide surplus of qualified teachers, although tenured hiring, I assume, come from the priority pool, which requires several years of teaching experience. I have noted that some of these individuals are exceptionally well qualified. I will not delve into a CBC report of eight years ago, dealing with ‘stress related illness’ except to suggest, that based on my experience, the numbers seem exaggerated.

    Back to demographics, the country, and specifically this province, is a period of transition. The real question may be how to construct a budget which balances the health and pension costs of an increasing aging population and the education costs of school and university with fewer students. The economic tension between old and young is presently exemplified in the municipal pension dispute. In the 1980’s the average age in Quebec was about 30, today it more than 40; there are a greater number of senior citizens than ever before and they are living longer. The budgetary implications are enormous; fewer workers mean less in taxes, coinciding with more people requiring support from the state. My point regarding paying higher school taxes for fewer students may receive a sympathetic hearing from many feeling the same crunch. Of course, taxes for education being based on property value is absurd, one would hardly be expected to pay a tax for health care based on one’s place of residence.

    You quote a report , one which is highly supportive of a freeze or cut in university tuition , that essentially concludes that just make the rich pay more , and we have the solution—and you suggest that I am naive! Could I be facetious and request that you consider that those students in Quebec universities, who benefitted from subsidies in private ‘elite’ schools be asked to pay more at the university level, to offset their previously unfairly gained educational advantage? Referring to a report that coincides with a personal belief always causes me to suspect the conclusions—it is the cynic in me. No doubt if I quoted a Fraser Institute report, you would feel skeptical too! Nonetheless, there seems to be a consensus that Quebec is the most indebted of the provinces, and the highest taxed. Do you dispute that? Are you suggesting that that can be resolved by hiking corporation taxes? Are those corporate taxes that much lower in Quebec than elsewhere? Some teachers, in schools close to Ontario, move there in order to obtain a significant increase in their net income –they pay Ontario taxes! In education, Quebec has the lowest university fees, is the only province with CEGEPS, and has the most generous system of day care —and the most bureaucracy.

    As a taxpayer, I thought, at least, that we should cut the bureaucracy; is that your picture of a right wing zealot? I am faintly amused that I am simplistically tagged as a supporter of a neo-liberal agenda. I suppose I think of myself as a Keynesian; but that is irrelevant in dealing with a reality; that Quebec has serious financial problems. So Mr. Green, let us put you in charge of the budget, let us hear your remedies, and as editor of your blog, I hardly need to promise that you can have the last word.

    Regards,

    Jim Wilson

  2. Thank you for your response Mr Wilson.

    In it you accuse me of being a lackey of the school boards because I oppose cutting their funding. However, I might accuse you of the very same thing. After all it is you that seems to have complete faith that those running our school boards will magnanimously forgo their next junket or nepotistic hiring in order to shield students from being impacted by these cuts. Did the $650 million cut since 2010 eliminate school board waste? Or is it only the next $150 million in cuts that will succeed in hitting the waste?

    Throughout this discussion I notice you have failed to identify a single position or a single area of the school board bureaucracy that you would cut. Would you cut payroll? HR? Pedagogical consultants? If there is so much waste in the school boards as you suggest, why not specify that? We would all like to see nepotism and inefficiency disappear, but how in concrete terms does slashing funding achieve this?

    Personally I think if the goal is to eliminate corruption and inefficiency the government would do far better to send in a team of bloodthirsty auditors ready to scrutinize and expose to the light every transaction involving the expenditure of public money made by the school boards.

    In my response to your letter I mentioned the rumours at my school that secretaries, lab-techs, librarians and programmers will be hit by these cuts. After discussing this with staff at my school yesterday I discovered that I left out one very important group: child care workers. Apparently next year, thanks to these cuts, child care workers will have their hours reduced.

    If all this turns out to be true, would you continue to support these cuts? Four of five of these positions deal with students directly and cutting the fifth will result in added stress for teachers. The effects for special needs students of cutting child care workers are obvious and grave. However, the other cuts will affect them too. When there is less staff to track attendance, to ensure that science labs are safe, and to keep libraries open it is students and particularly at-risk students that are most affected. Does it bother you that this is the likely effect of what you are advocating?

    You also take issue with me characterizing your argument in favour of balancing the province’s books through cuts to public services as neoliberal, insisting that you are in fact a Keynesian. You can identify yourself however you wish but I maintain that what you are proposing is far closer to neoliberalism than anything proposed by Keynes. After all Keynes’ primary preoccupation was maintaining a healthy level of aggregate demand by supporting things like progressive taxation, social spending and a strong labour movement. What you are proposing is that the province pay for the $4 billion in tax cuts to the rich, corporations and banks through cuts to social spending …social spending which helps protect aggregate demand. This is the polar opposite of the sort of economic policy proposed by Keynes. It’s effect is to concentrate not redistribute wealth.

    While you suggest that raising taxes on the rich is naive, the post-war period to the 1970’s – when Keynesian thinking dominated most Western governments – saw the top marginal tax rate on the rich nearly double what it is today. This is also the period during which corporations contributed a far greater proportion of overall taxes than they do today. Mr Wilson you may have bought the line that governments are impotent to reverse these trends, but if so I would suggest you stop referring to yourself as a Keynesian. If there’s one thing that Keynes believed it is that states have the power to intervene in the economy to reduce inequality and promote stable growth.

    And its not like I’m proposing something extreme here. Unless you consider late 90’s Quebec to have been some kind of extreme experiment in socialism.

    I also take issue with your suggestion that Quebec is over-taxed. Such a position is only tenable if one ignores the things we get for those taxes. Yes we pay more taxes but we also get more services. We have the most affordable post-secondary education, auto insurance and day care to name a few. In terms of various forms of support for young families Quebec is by far the most generous province in Canada. Part of the neoliberal project is to delink in the public mind taxes from the services they provide. In this sense, once again, you seem to have drunk the koolaid.

    A few years ago the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives did a study (https://www.policyalternatives.ca/newsroom/news-releases/public-services-bargain-canadians-study) demonstrating that for the vast majority of Canadians the value of the public services they received was far greater than the amount they paid in taxes. What this means is that for the vast majority paying taxes actually adds to a family’s overall wealth. Quebec’s $7/day care program (also being cut by the Liberals) is a great illustration of this. In Ontario, where no such program exists, the lowest quality day care is about $35/day.

    All that said I do agree that average Quebecers are increasingly feeling squeezed. But this is because over the course of their last stint in office your beloved Liberal party made cuts to progressive taxes on income while replacing those revenues with a series of regressive increases to user fees (http://www.iris-recherche.qc.ca/publications/la_revolution_tarifaire_au_quebec). The end result is a shift of the tax burden from the rich to the rest of us.

    As for my prescription for Quebec’s economy my position is simple: I favour means of reducing the deficit that also reduce inequality. There are many ways that could be achieved but one way that I would suggest is that before imposing any form of austerity on the public sector, begin by rolling back the $4 billion in tax cuts to the rich, corporations and banks that have been enacted since 2000 and that are the reason for our current deficit in the first place. I would then get serious about attacking the other two causes of our deficits: corruption and tax havens. With any renewed fiscal capacity from this we could then discuss making serious reinvestments in health care and education or perhaps discuss eliminating some of the regressive user fees that are so unfair for the majority of Quebecers.

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