More money for teachers won’t make public schools better

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Appeared in True North, June 24, 2023
More money for teachers won’t make public schools better

“Please sir, I want some more.” This famous line comes from Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Oliver Twist. Set in mid-19th century England, Dickens vividly depicted the extreme poverty experienced by London’s many orphans. Readers naturally sympathize with the young orphan who just wants a little more food. As they should. These orphans needed a lot more, not just a little.
Unfortunately, Canadian teacher unions seem to think that they’re the 21st century incarnation of Oliver Twist. Hardly a month goes by without a union leader demanding more money. Of course, they try to make it look like they are advocating for students.
For example, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation is loudly denouncing the Saskatchewan government’s recent announcement of an extra $40 million for public education. In the federation’s view, that number is “missing a zero.” Meanwhile, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation panned their province’s latest budget because it lacked targeted funding to hire more teachers.
It’s a similar story in other provinces. No matter how much money provincial governments pour into public education, teacher unions, like Oliver Twist, always want more. However, unlike Oliver Twist, they have no idea how much more would be enough to satisfy them.
Clearly, teacher unions fail to realize there’s only so much money to go around. Every dollar used to hire more teachers or increase their salaries is money that must come from somewhere else—either by cutting other services or raising taxes on the public. It’s easy for an interest group to demand more money when they don’t have the responsibility of figuring out where that money will come from.
In addition, no province has actually cut education spending. While spending increases haven’t fully kept pace with the unusually high inflation rates over the last couple of years, school boards across the country still receive more money than they did before. Besides, if increases in education spending are supposed to be linked with inflation, then provinces spent far too much when they gave three per cent (or higher) salary increases to teachers in years when inflation was much lower.
The problem is that we have a bureaucratically dominated education system where there’s little to no accountability for outcomes. And salaries comprise the vast majority of education spending. Thus, salaries and benefits will invariably gobble up any spending increases.
Therefore, there’s no reason to assume that more money will lead to better results. No one seriously thinks, for example, that paying teachers five per cent more results in a five per cent improvement in academic achievement. Nor is it reasonable to assume that simply hiring more teachers will fix the problem, particularly since there’s no guarantee that these new teachers will be good at their jobs.
Obviously, it’s important to ensure that teachers are fairly compensated. However, Canadian teachers are paid quite well by international standards. In fact, Canadian teacher salaries are generally much higher than those of their American counterparts. It would be foolish indeed to pour more money into the education system without a clear plan to get better results.
So, instead of protecting the existing system, we should empower families. Provinces should decide how much money to spend on each student (with a higher allotment for students with special needs) and then let parents use that money to enroll their children in the schools of their choice—whether it’s a public school, charter school or independent school. Then hold these schools accountable with regular standardized tests.
No longer would school boards be able to pad their roster with consultants or blow money on professional development sessions of questionable value. By giving parents the ability to remove their children—and take their funding with them—school boards would have to become more responsive to parents and more careful with their spending.
More money is not the solution. Spending it more wisely is. The next time teacher unions say that they want some more, we need to give them a firm no. They get plenty already.

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