by Mary Moszynski

A new report suggesting teachers’ unions prevent meaningful education policies from being introduced into provincial classrooms highlights the intricate relationship between unions and government, says Education Minister Kelly Lamrock.

The paper, entitled Getting the Fox out of the Schoolhouse: How the Public can Take Back Public Education, suggests provincial governments are unable to implement important policies aimed at improving public education because of union opposition.

Although Lamrock acknowledged there are circumstances where the provincial government has gone against the wishes of a union, he stressed that doesn’t mean teachers are purposefully blocking useful reforms from being introduced.

“When unions make good policy suggestions, they should be accepted and when they make bad ones, they should be rejected,” he said. “I think the one thing (in the document) that is a fair point is that governments always have to remember that unions do, at the end, exist to promote the interests of teachers, which are not necessarily always going to be those of children and their learning.”

For example, Lamrock said earlier this year the union representing teaching assistants was using seniority to allow an assistant with more experience to bump another assistant with fewer years in the union from being paired with a particular child.

“In our system, while I understand why unions would promote seniority as a union issue, it was not acceptable to have a decision made about a teaching assistant made based on anything other than the best interest of the child,” he said. “So we significantly expanded government’s ability to overrule union seniority when the child’s learning depends on having a particular assistant.”

The report, prepared on behalf of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, recommends provincial governments introduce standardized testing, compensate outstanding teachers, give parents a greater choice in choosing schools, remove principals from the negotiation process and not allow teachers to strike or be locked-out.

The report states the unions have been able to wield so much power because parents and provincial governments have not attempted to stop the unions from taking advantage of the system.

“Because the union speaks on behalf of the teachers we have basically taken all of the positive experiences we’ve had with individual teachers who were so important in our lives and given all that good will to the unions,” said Charles Cirtwill, interim president of AIMS. “In fact, the thing that the authors are arguing is that these are unions, these are not your Grade 6 homeroom teachers or your Grade 10 English teachers.”

Lamrock said several of those reforms have already been implemented or are in progress. For example, the province offers some standardized testing at the high school level and its new innovation fund rewards teachers for creative teaching methods.

Brent Shaw, president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association, disagrees that New Brunswick teachers are blocking the development of meaningful education reforms.

“There’s good policy and there’s not-so-good policy,” he said. “I believe the union would be interested in any policy that’s a good policy to protect students, teachers.”

Two years ago the teachers were on the verge of striking following several intense months of negotiations. In the end, a new contract was signed without a strike. However the teachers worked-to-rule — meaning they only did the work outlined in their contract — and students and parents worried about whether they would lose their school year.

Negotiations between the New Brunswick Teachers Federation and the provincial government are expected to start again next month.

Shaw said teachers should have the right to strike.

“Why would we be excluded from tools?” he said. “It’s always a last resort. Think about it, our last strike was in 1981. So it isn’t as though teacher unions in this province are keen on striking. It would be a very last resort.”