Since the beginning of the academic year, public school teachers, and many from private schools too, have abandoned their classes on an almost weekly basis and taken to the streets. The reason? They are demanding that the Council of Ministers, Lebanon’s cabinet, stop stalling and honor its promise to refer the new salary scale draft law to the parliament. At first glance this dispute may seem straightforward — in reality, the wide array of interests and possible impacts at play make for a class in politics and economic algebra all on their own.
Principles of protest
Teachers striking for better wages has become a near annual occurrence in Lebanon, and, mainly due to their unified and organized front, their protests have met with some limited success. However, with the relentlessly rising cost of living eroding away these gains, it is never too long before the teachers head back to the streets.
“Do you know that a teacher working full time for 20 years ends up, by law, with a basic salary of only $1,333 [per month]?!” said May Hamadeh, a private school teacher at a protest in October. “Many schools of course do pay you more than that, but when the law itself does not respect the teaching profession, it makes us teachers feel angry and reflects on our teaching and students.”
In September, with public school teachers threatening to leave students’ official examinations uncorrected, the cabinet agreed to a draft law approving a new and improved salary scale for all public sector employees, including public school teachers; private school teachers are also affected as their salaries are built on a similar pay scale. Since then, however, the cabinet has delayed referring the draft law to the parliament. The teachers have continued to take their anger to the streets and it is the students who have been caught in the middle — though teacher’s unions have promised they will make up for time lost striking. “I like it when we don’t have school because I get to sleep in but I don’t want to start coming on Saturdays or during vacations to make up for the lessons lost while our teachers were off,” says Rabih, a fourth grader at one of Ras Beirut’s public schools. “It’s not my fault… so why should I pay the price?"
A class in ineptitude
The cabinet’s reason to delay implementing the salary hike is that they simply don’t have the money to pay for the estimated $1.5 billion annual increase in wages for the 180,000 public sector employees affected by the law. “We cannot pay the salary increases all at once and we cannot approve the salary scale draft and send it to Parliament without revenues,” said Prime Minister Najib Mikati in a recent press conference at the Grand Serail. “The teacher unions are demanding that the draft be sent to Parliament without ensuring revenues and new taxes which is not realistic.”
Government proposals for raising funds include increasing taxes on luxury items and customer deposits at banks, and to perhaps pay the wage increases in increments of four to five years; the government insists it will not raise taxes in a manner that will affect limited income families.
The teachers’ unions have rejected the installments proposal, as it was not part of the agreement they had reached during meetings with the ministerial committees. The union insists that the government can pay the increases if they just cut down on excess spending, fought corruption and improved tax collection, especially from the Beirut Port. However, the central bank and private-sector economic associations have warned the government of the negative impact adopting this law would have on Lebanon’s already struggling economy. By adopting such a costly and contentious law without having thought through how it would be funded, the cabinet has caught itself between a rock and a hard place, with no escape in sight.
Private vs public school impacts
Many private school directors have been watching this battle apprehensively, fearing the impact such a law would have on their schools’ budgets. “There are around 15 big private schools in the country that will not be affected by this law because they already have a high number of students, and because they cater to a caliber of parents who will not notice if their child’s tuition goes up a little bit more than usual,” notes Maurice Dabaghi, principal of Marjeyoun National college, explaining that even though the law will not impact all private schools equally, the government is acting as if it would. “Consideration should be given to the community the school is serving, as salaries and conditions in Beirut differ from those in remote areas of the country,” continues Dabaghi.
Those big schools aside, the majority of privately owned schools in the country do indeed cater to students of middle income families who might be tempted to change schools should tuitions spike up significantly. “This year, I removed my eldest child from a private school here [in Marjeyoun] and enrolled him in the public school because we can’t afford the tuition for all three of my children — if tuitions increase again next year, I will have to put all my children in the public school,” complained Maha, one of the many indignant parents wondering what they might have to do with their children if the law passes. Knowing that tuition is a major consideration for many parents when picking a school for their child, this law has the potential to create an unhealthy situation where schools lower their tuition fees to compete with other schools, at the expense of quality education.
How children will suffer
“The impact on schools can be measured by the ratio of students to teachers in each class,” explains Paul Owiess, principal of the National Evangelical School in Kfershima. “If a school has more than 40 students in each class, which some schools do, then the teacher’s salary can easily be paid from these students’ tuition. However, if you are a school that cares about the quality of education you are providing, [by having] no more than 20 students in each class, then this law will negatively impact you.”
Those schools that don’t want to increase tuition might consider other ways of cutting costs, such as firing their longest serving — and therefore most highly paid — staff, but this might leave them vulnerable to lawsuits by those teachers. Instead, Owiess says that between a choice of two candidates, schools might start choosing the one with less years of service due to her lower salary rights, though the other might be better qualified. An equally undesirable way of cutting costs to help fund the increased salaries is halting all extracurricular activities, and only teaching core topics.
As the fate of the law is kicked around from pillar to post it creates a pervading sense of insecurity for both school administrations and the teachers. It is of course the education of the students that suffers the most. The cabinet has made a mess of the whole process by trying to bungle through an ill-considered law. That cannot be changed, but it means they must now work with all the involved parties to find a solution so teachers and management can get on with the business of educating Lebanon’s youth.