Andres Kaarmann: Who or what are teachers striking against?

Andres Kaarmann.
Andres Kaarmann. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

While I'm not a big fan of strike action, I would be willing to join teachers in their warning strike on one condition. Namely that the strike be held in front of half-empty schoolhouses the heating and maintenance of which is what teachers' salary money is being spent on, Andres Kaarmann writes.

This Friday saw a warning strike in many schools and kindergartens. Unfortunately, a lot of people, including teachers, have not fully understood who or what they are striking against. Upon asking, I have mostly been told that it's politicians who were throwing around promises before elections which they have now walked back. It makes little sense to get into the general topic of politicians making promises they cannot keep.

I support the education workers' strike for one very concrete reason. Definitely not to pressure the government into allocating more money from the state budget, as Estonia's public sector spending on education is already among the most generous in the OECD. But the strike is a good way to draw attention to the general education situation and how sensibly we are using our existing education budget.

Who pays teachers' salaries?

I have tried to shed light on the fact that neither the Estonian government nor the Ministry of Education employ teachers. Teachers' salaries come from school operators, mostly city or rural municipality governments. That said, it is also true that a lot of teachers' salary money comes from the state budget and their minimum wage is determined by the central government. However, a teacher's pay at the end of the day largely depends on the local government where they work.

There are local governments that add considerable sums to teachers' salary money, while there are also those where teachers do not even see all of what is meant for them from the state budget. The wages of kindergarten teachers do not depend on the ministry at all and come almost exclusively from municipal budgets.

In other words, teachers' salaries largely depend on how well a city or rural municipality has organized its educational affairs, or how many students it has per teacher, how many square meters of space per student or the average class-size.

There are other such indicators that affect the salaries of teachers to a lesser or greater extent. Why else do we have a situation where teachers make over €2,300 monthly in some local governments, while it's just €1,700 in others, even though the central government allocates wage money based on similar principles?

Pay of teachers largely depends on local government decisions

While Harju County local governments have been referred to as wealthy, no one makes mention of the fact that they also have much higher expenses. The reason is that they have relatively more children and students, whereas spending on kindergartens, schools and hobby education tends to make up over half of local budgets.

Another characteristic feature of Harju County local governments is their above-average efficiency when it comes to matters of education organization. There are more students per teacher and the average size of classes is bigger, while they make do with fewer square meters of space per student. That is where the opportunity is created to pay teachers a better wage.

First half-year data for 2023 puts Harju County local governments on top when it comes to who pays teachers more. The rural municipalities of Jõelähtme, Saue and Saku as well as the City of Maardu have paid their teachers an average salary of over €2,300. It would be more fair to compare salaries at the end of the year as many schools have reserves for end-of-year bonuses, while it does not change the fact that the pay of teachers working within 100 kilometers of one another might differ by €500-600 a month.

Outstanding administrative reform still a bottleneck

How local governments have managed to modernize their education organization is key to decent salaries. Estonia's administrative reform has taken a lot of flak in rural areas and been painted as the root cause of problems.

But I would rather ask what would have happened had we not had the reform? I believe the situation would be even more desolate had we still rural municipalities with just a few thousand residents and their own local government heads. However, unfortunately, we must admit that the administrative reform was no magic wand in terms of solving problems. It was merely an opportunity to create conditions for the necessary changes.

Saue Municipality was created by merging four local governments, two of them wealthy and two less so. The necessary investments were made in the early years and aimed first at far-away regions. Saue does not have a municipal high school and the emphasis is squarely on basic schools. Smaller educational institutions are under shared management, and the municipality has three school-kindergartens.

This sensible organization means that Saue has 13 students per teacher on average, while the average class size is 21 students. Whereas these figures do not make Saue the most efficient local government in Estonia, far from it. But the result is that a qualified teacher is paid a minimum of €1,899 and €2,329 on average.

A good example of a successful rural school (as Saue Municipality is large and neighbors the capital Tallinn – ed.) is the nine-grade basic school operating in the Ruila Manor complex. It shares its management with a five-class kindergarten. The school has over 170 students and over nine out of ten students take the bus to school or are driven by their parents. The school sports modern facilities, sports hall, new stadium, library, shop and technology classrooms, support services for children with special needs, and offers versatile hobby activities.

Would all of the students and their teachers have the same conditions if instead of a single school there would be four or five schools with 30-40 students each and separate principals? Hardly.

The labor dispute between the Estonian Education Personnel Union and the Ministry of Education has reached a deadlock. Legally speaking, the situation is indeed very complicated, and a lot of people have fallen out as a result.

The Education Ministry, which is not the employer of teachers, is sitting behind the negotiating table, while local governments, that are, do not wish to participate. While the ministry's wish to involve local governments is understandable, why should they voluntarily take responsibility for politicians' empty promises? Perhaps the government should have sat down with its local counterparts before making generous promises.

Local governments were also "bombed" last year when the salary of teachers was hiked by 23.9 percent. What this meant for local governments is that they also had to raise the pay of almost everyone working with children – kindergarten teachers, youth workers and other highly educated specialists – by virtually as much. Local government budgeting is subject to very strict rules, and they cannot simply assume unfeasible obligations, unlike the central government.

Going on strike is a personal decision. I have talked to teachers in our municipality and been told by most that while they have no criticism for the local government, they are standing in solidarity with others. In other words, the strike is also inconveniencing children and parents in those municipalities that have pursued a sensible education policy.

While I'm not a big fan of strike action, I would be willing to join teachers in their warning strike on one condition. Namely that the strike be held in front of half-empty schoolhouses the heating and maintenance of which is virtually what teachers' salary money is being spent on.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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