The Cost Disease Infects Public Education Across Canada

Executive Summary • Professor William Baumol coined the term “the cost disease” to indicate that the cost of consumer products has increased at the rate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), while […]
Published on March 13, 2014

Executive Summary

• Professor William Baumol coined the term “the cost disease” to indicate that the cost of consumer products has increased at the rate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), while the cost of education and health care have increased at an exponential rate.

• From 1999-00 to 2010-11, for example, enrollment in Canadian public schools decreased by 6.8 per cent, the number of educators increased by 8.0 per cent, and expenditures increased by about 60 per cent from slightly over $37.3-billion to almost $59.2-billion.

• If the public education expenditures increased at the same rate as the increase in CPI, it would be $46.8-billion and in 2010-11 the savings would be around $12.4-billion, or 21 per cent.

• Parent-controlled funding (vouchers) would increase competition among schools and improve the education of students.

• In addition, schools would concentrate on objective, measurable, outputs—those that are essential for ensuring that students are informed, enlightened, and employable.

• Excellent schools would attract more students and low-performing schools would wither and close.

• Considerable money would be saved as schools become more efficient and more responsive to the needs of students, parents, and taxpayers.


William Baumol, professor emeritus of economics at Princeton University, is the author of The Cost Disease: Why Computers get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t.1 The “cost disease” is a term Professor Baumol coined in the 1960s, but more recently it has become known as “Baumol’s disease” or “Baumol’s curse” for a very good reason.2 The disease has, over the last two decades, spread like a virus through all the social services delivered by governments, particularly education and health care.3

Building on over 40 years of economics research, Professor Baumol has shown that while the cost of consumer products, such as automobiles and computers, has increased at a certain rate—a rate that is incorporated into the Consumer Price Index (CPI)—the cost of social services, such as education and health care, has increased at a much faster rate. Professor Baumol says that these social services are “condemned” to increase faster than inflation because the number of people providing and using the services continue to expand and they cannot be easily reduced.

In fact, the empirical evidence from a number of countries shows that increases in the cost of education represent an exponential growth curve, rising much faster than the CPI, which means that the increases are unsustainable over the long term.4 Particularly with an aging population and stagnant or decreasing productivity, provincial and territorial governments in Canada will be forced to slow the increasing cost of public education.5

This backgrounder examines the costs of public education in the provinces and territories from 1999 to 2011, showing that the cost disease has, in fact, infected public education, but at different rates. Thus, provincial and territorial governments with more expensive public educational systems can learn from those with less expensive systems.

View entire study here.

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