Early Education is a Protection for Democracy – McCain

By Margaret Norrie McCain

From iPhone Feb 131

The Economist Intelligence Unit recorded another slide in its latest Democracy Index. Only 19 countries out of 167 were counted as “full democracies” in 2017. This marked another drop since 2015 when the U.S. fell to a “flawed democracy” status; the result of a decline in popular confidence in public institutions. It is a trend that predated—and aided—the election of Donald Trump. Canada has scored consistently well on the Democracy Index—it is currently ranked in 6th place based on its stable government, freedom of expression and religious and cultural tolerance.

Speaking in Hamburg, Germany last year Prime Minister Trudeau warned how fragile these values are. When “companies post record profits on the backs of workers in low wage, precarious jobs, people get defeated,” he said. When “governments serve special interests instead of the interests of the citizens who elected them, people lose faith.”

Inequality can make citizens distrust governments and employers, and we’re watching that anxiety transform into anger on an almost daily basis. “We can’t go about things the same way and expect to succeed in this new world,” Trudeau said. He called on companies to pay a living wage, and governments to create the conditions that promote equality.

A decade ago, a very similar narrative went into the creation of my family’s foundation. We made access to quality early childhood education — for all — our core mission. As a country, we are beginning to recognize the power of early education in achieving broader social, economic and equity goals. It is why provinces and territories have focused more attention on programs for preschoolers, and why the federal government is prepared to invest billions more over the coming decade.

Even before the promise of federal funds, researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education were documenting encouraging trends. According to the Early Childhood Education Report 2017 more than half of preschoolers now attend an early education program, up from 25 percent when a national framework was last contemplated in 2006. Meanwhile, provinces and territories increased spending on early learning from $2.5-billion in 2006 to $11.7-billion in 2017. The report highlights the increasing importance of public education to very young children: 40 percent of four-year-olds now get their early education in school. Yet there are significant gaps in early learning between jurisdictions, demonstrating how much work remains. Using a 15-point scale, scores ranged from 11.5 for Prince Edward Island to Nunavut, which scored five.

The importance of the early years to human development cannot be overstated. Canadian babies are pretty much the same at birth, but by the time they start school there are big gaps in their health, vocabulary and self-confidence. Some will have a much harder time getting along with their classmates and teachers. They may lack the basic skills of their peers.

The sad news is school won’t be able to compensate many children for what they missed in their earliest years. Worse, the difficulties they experience at school entry are likely to grow, rather than lessen, over time. As adults, low levels of literacy could leave them less able to participate in society, more alienated, and more vulnerable to demagogues offering simplistic, dangerous “solutions” to complex problems.
Larry Diamond, one of the world’s leading democracy scholars, says we are experiencing a “democracy recession”. The Democracy Index shows its steepest decline in Western Europe, home to democracies far older than Canada’s. Economic change leaves many feeling alienated and angry as they are left behind.
Public policy must respond by helping citizens to understand what is happening, and by supporting them to adjust. At the same time it must prepare the next generation to lead and flourish in the new environment. This is the humane thing to do; it makes economic sense and the Canada we know depends on it.

Canadians have reason to be proud of our democratic institutions, but it is necessary to take a closer look at our red flags flapping — climate change and population dislocation, income inequality, child poverty and the gender gap.

These are serious problems and the response must be both national and international. In this century, there will be nine billion human beings on the planet. These numbers are changing how we live and organize ourselves. They influence socioeconomic initiatives and infrastructures; and test the limits of the environment. Canada will not be immune. The future is already here.

Five years of drought preceded the carnage in Syria. Water and food shortages ignited inter-faith, inter-ethnic cleansing which displaced millions. A fraction of the diaspora has made its way to our shores. We have welcomed these small numbers, who will make their contributions to building Canada. But what of the millions more on the run from war, climate catastrophe and rulers hostile to them because of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation?

Instead of an humanitarian response, too often countries seal their doors in fear and anger generated by the likes of Donald Trump. But walls do not make us safer. Our security, indeed our very survival as a species, depends on our ability to close the gap between rich and poor, and ensure that future generations have the capacity to sustain democratic and pluralistic societies.

The architects that gave rise to Trumpism know that illiteracy and democracy cannot co-exist. This is why they have made the destruction of public education central to their agenda. Decimated teachers’ unions and charter schools have not provided families with educational choice or improved children’s outcomes. They have made private operators fabulously wealthy with public money.

Canada has an advantage. Our schools enjoy high public confidence. In international assessments we are in the top 10%, but lag behind the top performers who use their educational system more intently, enrolling children at a younger age and expanding options for working parents.

The Conference Board of Canada has documented how inequality drags on Canada’s productivity and has analyzed the impact of universal early education on reducing the equity gap. It quantifies early education’s lasting benefits for children, particularly for those from disadvantaged families and recommends that governments guarantee all children a minimum of two years of preschool education and expand to include younger children as resources permit. Early education for every child would be a big-ticket item, but nearly 60 years of experimental studies indicate clear benefits for children that last into adulthood.

There are encouraging signs that policy makers are hearing this message. We welcome the federal government’s renewed interest in early learning and childcare and note the efforts made by provinces and territories to expand access, and improve the quality of early years services.

While early education is a provincial and territorial responsibility, the federal government has an obligation for programming for Aboriginal families. It alone has the capacity to support pan-Canadian research and innovation and to provide transparent reporting to Canadians on the wellbeing of their children.

Discussions of early education must consider its place within a child and family strategy. This includes income supports and parental leave. All governments have improved income supports to families, but outside Quebec, parental leave is accessible to fewer and fewer new parents.

Flexible parental leave is a complement to early education. But only 60 percent of mothers outside Quebec take parental leave when their baby is born. For those earning under $30,000 the rate is only 40 percent. The most vulnerable families have the least access to what is suppose to be a universal program. The lack of parental leave and good educational care creates a “care penalty” for women, which negatively impacts their economic well-being over the life course.

Early education and care is central to many public priorities including reducing illiteracy, supporting innovation, attracting and retaining a skilled workforce, increasing fertility and improving educational outcomes. Together we need to identify and share new thinking about how to spend wiser, and expand access while improving quality. Could Ottawa host a clearinghouse of innovative approaches?

For example:
• Properly fund parental leave as a less expensive alternative to childcare for infants.
• How about changing the federal Child Care Expense Deduction to a benefit?
• Ottawa could allow province and territories to use its funding in early years programs delivered by schools. How about 4 year olds in under enrolled kindergarten classes? How about reorganizing community and school programs to better share facilities, books and staffing? Is it possible to include early education in school funding formulas?

Progress must be measureable. The Early Childhood Education Report that updates on the status of early childhood services every three years, provides an accessible means of communicating progress.

Investment in early education also matters. Most Canadian governments spend less than two percent of their budgets on early learning and care. Countries with the best outcomes for kids are spending six percent. It is time for Canada to up its contribution for its youngest citizens. Let’s make six percent a target.

It’s not just money, but how it is spent. Advocates point to Quebec for its broad access to childcare. A 2016 commission examining its status provides a portrait of a service that helped to transform and modernize Quebec society, but is now tired. Its facilities and workforce need nurturing. The commission made a number of recommendations to improve childcare’s “contributions to equal opportunity”. Central is to replace the idea of daycare as a service so parents can work, with a system formally integrated with public education, and “covered by the same broad principles of universal and free access.”

Canada is well placed to take up this challenge. We can enhance equity of opportunity by building onto public education to provide every child with the best start possible. Building education down makes sense. Among our Anglo-American counterparts, Canada has the highest enrolment in publicly funded education. Parent confidence is well founded. Our schools are among our most prized democratic institutions. They have helped children born here and abroad to engage with their society. As they respond to their communities across the life cycle, support for public education, for pluralism, and for democracy grows.

I conclude with a story. My dear friend, the late Dr. Ann Sherman, Dean of Education at the University of New Brunswick, had a doctoral student from Bhutan.. During the holiday season the student’s young son commented to Ann that this “Jesus guy was a lot like Buddha”. Ann agreed, adding that they both believed in a peaceful and loving world.

In Canada, Jesus and Buddha can be good neighbours. We can’t be complacent about what a marvelous accomplishment this is. We must stand on guard, to ensure a Canada where such stories continue to flourish.

-30-

1

Margaret Norrie McCain is Chair of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation

Subscribe to the Pearson Centre newsletter.

Insightful commentary & debate, delivered to your inbox. Sign up below.