Do the numbers add up in Ontario public schools?

Commentary, Education, Kathleen Canjar, Rodney Clifton

Mark Milke, in Tax Me I’m Canadian! Your Money and How Politicians Spend It, has a good point. Canadians are paying too much and getting way too little in return.

But Ontario government’s continuous expansion of its commitment to education and education spending proves this point. Aimed at reducing class size and increasing student achievement, these initiatives have come with a hefty price tag and with little to show for it. 

In June, Sun News reported a decrease in the number of students who met the provincial standard in grade three and six math tests. Results for grade three were down 3 per cent from the 70 per cent who achieved provincial standard, and grade six students were down 6 per cent from the 63 per cent who achieved standards in 2008-2009.

Yet, Ontario’s education spending continues to increase. The table shows that between 2001 and 2012  public school students have decreased by 5.6 per cent  while the numbers of educators increased by 2.3 per cent, meaning that the student educator ratio has fallen from 19.2 to 17.8.

But, Ontario public education expenditures increased by a staggering 57.6 per cent in the last ten years. Expenditures per student increased even more, by 66.8 per cent.

Spending has also amounted to large increases in salaries for teachers and administrators, increasing 18% from 2007 to 2011.

William Baumol, professor emeritus of economics at Princeton University and the author of The Cost Disease, coined this term to explain a trend in social services, such as education, where they always increase faster than inflation.

Baumol’s explanation for this trend is that people providing and using the service cannot be easily reduced. They can be easily expanded though.

Between 2001 and 2012 the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased by only 22.3 per cent. The actual cost of education each public school student in Ontario was $11,220.60 in 2011-12 while if the cost was only inflated by the CPI it would be only $8,222.26.

In other words, the savings would be almost $33 billion over the ten years if costs were kept to increases in CPI.

Rethinking the way education is funded (and administered) in Ontario is overdue.

For starters, Ontario needs to address the issue of constantly increasing costs, including teacher’s and administrators’ salaries.

Teachers should be paid sufficiently, but salaries and benefits have grown faster than CPI. Resources need to be focused in classroom to help students with remedial skills, especially in math and reading.

Consequently, Ontario must tie spending more directly to demand and achievement. To do this, vouchers should be issued so students could go to any public or independent school.

Schools with higher enrolments and better academic results would have larger budgets, while schools with lower enrolments and poorer results would have lower budgets.

By allocating money to students more effectively, the province can reduce the continual increase in the cost of education and make sure students see more resources in their classroom.

Premier Wynn and Education Minister Liz Sandals must keep the Cost Disease at the top of their agenda as they redesign public education in Ontario to give students and taxpayers the results they pay for.