by David Shipley

The provincial teachers union wields too much influence over public education policy in New Brunswick, says a new report. The report, called Getting the Fox out of the Schoolhouse: How the Public can Take Back Public Education, argues teachers unions in Canada are opposed to reforms that would improve the public system.

Three teachers wrote the report for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Halifax-based public and social policy think-tank, said the intent of the report is to show that there are times when teachers unions don’t always have the best interests of students as their top priority.

“What’s happened is that the public and to a greater extent the government, whether that’s elected officials or senior bureaucrats, have basically allowed unions to take a leadership role,” Cirtwill said.

But allowing the unions too much say in education policy has hampered much-needed reforms, he said.

“Many of the reforms that the teachers’ unions have most aggressively opposed, actually have some evidentiary basis to shows they can improve the student performance and the education experience,” he said.

Cirtwill said teachers unions in Canada have opposed measures such as standardized testing, greater school choice for parents and students and performance-based pay because such measures would offer greater external accountability.

“You have to understand that unions, and this is a point that gets lost in this discussion, unions first and foremost exist to represent the interests of their members.”

Among the recommendations in the report:

*Standardized testing regimes to assess the achievement of students;

*Greater choice for parents in the schools their children can attend;

*Adjusting the salary scheme for teachers to allow for the recognition of meritorious performance;

*The removal of principals from the bargaining unit for teachers;

*The replacement of strike and lockout provisions for teachers with binding arbitration.

Brent Shaw, president of the New Brunswick Teachers Federation, said the provincial teachers’ union has a healthy and collaborative relationship with the Department of Education.

“They ask for our input on many issues and they respect our views in the decision-making process.”

Shaw said the New Brunswick teachers’ union isn’t opposed to standardized testing – as long as such testing is aimed at improving student learning and not penalizing struggling students.

“The results have to be taken in comparison to other in-class assessments,” he said.

Shaw said as far as school choice, parents in the province already have some flexibility. However, the province should aim to offer a quality education in all schools so that everyone in the province has access to the same level of education, he said.

The union president said the issue of merit pay is more complex than it first seems.

“We don’t all have the same challenges in the classroom,” said Shaw. “Even the same teacher from year to year in the same school might not achieve the same level of success due to many factors outside of their control.”

The teachers’ federation is opposed to replacing the right of teachers to strike with binding arbitration, he said.

“Teachers work extremely hard. They want to at least maintain and hopefully improve their working conditions just like all other Canadians and really they should have the right to do that.”

Shaw said the teacher’s federation only acts as a union during contract negotiates with the province.

The rest of the time the federation is more like a professional society than a union and is committed to improving public education, he said.

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock said several of the issues raised by the AIMS report have already been addressed in the new provincial education plan. Specifically, the province has restored standardized testing at the high school level. The province is also recognizing outstanding teachers through the use of the innovative teaching fund.

Lamrock said his experience during the education reform process showed teachers care more about getting new tools to help them improve the student experience than they do about their own financial compensation.