To begin with, let me declare my bias. I believe that education is an essential service and that labour disputes should be settled with binding third party arbitration - no strikes, no lockouts.
Having said that, I have both walked the picket line as a young teacher embroiled in a two month strike against the Metro Toronto School Board and, as a Superintendent, have locked out secondary teachers who, we felt, put students at risk through a series of rotating strikes in a largely rural school district.
The real difficulty in teacher/government negotiations is that the two sides speak a different language. The government is focused on financial affordability and sustainability and the union is striving to improve salaries and working conditions for its members regardless of cost. It is pretty basic union/management stuff. Where it gets confusing for the general public and often for both teachers and politicians is that the public conversation is not about dollars or workload, but rather it always claims to be about kids.
The rallying cry is this current dispute is about "class size and composition". The union wants classes capped at a certain level and the number of children with identified special learning needs to be limited in each class. This would seem to be a straightforward request which should, in theory, improve the learning environment for all students. However, the counter-argument is equally compelling. The government points out that setting a class size maximum can result in two unintended outcomes. The first is that secondary students may be unable to enrol in certain courses that they want or need because the class is full. The second is that elementary students may be unable to attend their local school because a certain grade level is at maximum and have to go somewhere else where there is room. On the surface, you might think: "Well, just split the class." It seems simple enough. However, let's take the example of a class cap of 22 students, and, when the 23rd child arrives, you split the class into two groups of 12 and 11. The school district must then hire about 1.33 FTE faculty to teach the new cohort. The cost of adding that one student becomes between $60,000 - $110,000 depending on the qualifications and experience of the new staff members. Multiply that scenario times the number of grades, schools, and districts across province where this might happen and you can see why a government, looking at limited resources, might shy away from this potentially bottomless pit of potential cost.
Class composition is a similarly confused and confusing issue. As Gary Mason noted recently in the Globe and Mail:
[Class size and composition is] certainly an area where figures can be manipulated to bolster the cause of one side or another. For instance, the union will say that the number of classes with four or more [Special Needs] students has grown from 9,559 in 2006-7 to 16,163 in 2013-14. Within that number there are 3,800 with seven or more. On the surface, that looks deplorable.
But the government says, wait: The clumping together of students with IEPs is intentional. Rather than have educational assistants spread out over a number of classes to help these students, it was determined that a far more efficient method of dealing with this challenge was to group more of the kids together. And there is evidence that this is what the government is doing. The number of classes in BC with three special needs students or fewer in them has gone from 56,305 in 2005-6 to 51,857 in the current school year - a drop of 4,448.
Compounding the whole problem is the fact that the class size and composition conflict is currently before the courts. It is highly unlikely that any collective agreement will address the issue substantively while both sides are waiting for a ruling. Consequently it really comes back to salary and benefits.
The unfortunate part of the equation is that both sides have publicly staked out their positions. Neither side wishes to be seen to climb down. For the government, they have to account to local school districts, parents, and ultimately the tax-paying electorate; for the BCTF they have to explain to their members why their losses in pay and disruption in their lives didn't get the results that they were promised.
Absent actually negotiating an agreement, the government doesn't want binding arbitration because it means that an outsider will determine provincial budgets; for their part, the union may want the government to bail them out by legislating a settlement so that the province remains the "bad guy" and they can continue to play the victim card. Either way, it doesn't play out well for the students of the province.
No wonder many parents and students are turning to Shakespeare and quoting Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet:
A plague a' both your houses! I am sped.