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United OntarioTeachers Stand, Divided They Offer Extra-Curriculars

Ontarian parents who favour one unified school system would be wise to take a look at the education scene in B.C., where some say the teachers' union is more powerful than God. If we didn't have three teachers' unions in Ontario, it is likely that no students would be enjoying extra-curricular activities today.

What's up with the Ontario teachers' unions? One of them has been offering extra-curricular activities all throughout the political protests over the Liberal government's Bill 115; one of them has just changed its mind and decided to offer extra-curricular activities; and one of them won't budge.

On the face of it, there's no rhyme nor reason to justify these different policy positions. You would think that the circumstances would be the same for Ontario's three major teachers' unions, causing them to have solidarity -- but you would be wrong.

The teachers' union that has offered extra-curricular activities all along is the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA). OECTA is kind of like the Avis of the education industry -- it has to try harder.

OECTA is not only the smallest of the three major teachers' unions, it is also constantly fielding calls for the abolition of publicly-funded Catholic schools (which would mean certain death for OECTA). Now, according to Samuel Johnson, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully," and this precept has some application to OECTA.

Aware that their very existence depends on superior service, the Catholic schools on average do significantly better than the public schools on provincial tests (even after correcting for differences between the student bodies). In addition, the Catholic schools tend to be more responsive to parental wishes -- for example, avoiding the use of middle schools. And the Catholic schools have offered extra-curricular activities all throughout the protests.

OECTA's decision to stick with extra-curricular activities was thus in its own best interests, as well as in the best interests of its students. But what about the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF)? At first the OSSTF boycotted extra-curricular activities but recently it has dropped its boycott. How could it be possible that dropping the boycott came to be seen as being in the best interests of OSSTF as well?

The explanation can be found in Ontario's peculiar policy of allowing non-Catholic students to attend the province's publicly-funded Catholic high schools but not the publicly-funded elementary schools.

Because of this policy, grade 8 students have a choice. Along about this point in their school year, public grade 8 students begin shopping for a high school. And, of course, many students are strongly influenced by the availability of extra-curricular activities. If Catholic high schools are offering extra-curricular activities and public high schools are not offering extra-curricular activities, then many public grade 8 students might well choose a Catholic high school.

Now if fewer students are attending public high schools, there will be jobs for fewer public high school teachers. And, unless a downsized public high school teacher happened to be Catholic, he or she would likely be out of a job. Furthermore, the OSSTF would have one fewer dues-paying member.

If you multiply this phenomenon by the 80,000 or so grade 8 public school students in the province, and also include in your calculations the possibility that some grade 9 and grade 10 public high school students might also decide to transfer to Catholic high schools, you end up with a tidy sum. It turns out that the good folks who run the OSSTF can also do their sums, and I believe that is why the OSSTF belatedly found a reason why it was okay for their teachers to offer extra-curricular activities after all. Simple.

But what about the third major teachers' union -- the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO)? Why have they refused to budge on the issue of extra-curricular activities? Simple again.

The province's elementary public school students, except for a small minority who are Catholic, are stuck in their public school. For the most part, they can't transfer to a different school. And so the public school teachers' union doesn't have to cater to them very much, if at all. It is simply not in ETFO's interests to withdraw its ban on extra-curricular activities.

If, however, Ontario were to pass a new law that made it possible for non-Catholic elementary students to attend Catholic elementary schools, then it would be a different story. All of a sudden, it would turn out to be possible for ETFO to lift its ban on extra-curricular activities.

It really is very lucky for Ontario students that we have three major teachers' unions. In B.C., for example, there is only one teachers' union, and entire books have been written on the union's intransigence. In BC, the teachers' union is arguably more powerful than the province's premier. Some say more powerful than God.....

Ontarian parents who favour one unified school system would be wise to take a look at the education scene in B.C.

If we didn't have three teachers' unions in Ontario, it is highly likely that no Ontario students would be enjoying extra-curricular activities today.

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