It’s time to rethink child care; it’s time for preschool

By Margaret McCain

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As Canadian political leaders embark on the longest election campaign in our history they are finding that child care is an issue resonating with voters. Among the unexpected interested are 160 scientists and a coalition of charitable foundations. Earlier this summer the groups issued separate public statements, each urging policy makers to invest in high quality programs for preschoolers.

The scientists base their rationale on a wide body of research documenting the positive outcomes of preschool programs on children’s development.

The Early Child Development Funders Working Group, eight Canadian foundations with a focus on children’s wellbeing, echo the scientists’ appeal. Early education the group says is a must-have element in building a more prosperous country. It asks policy makers to commit to making publicly-funded, quality preschool available for every child.

Both statements amplify the evidence that early education is among the most cost-effective of the social programs, contributing to economic productivity and increased tax revenues while decreasing demand for welfare programs and special education. An analysis of Quebec’s child care plan shows the return ranges from $1.5 to almost $3 for every public $1 invested, with the benefit ratio for disadvantaged children in the double digits.

No doubt Quebec’s example is behind the federal NDP’s call for $15-a-day child care. Taking a different route, the Conservatives have upped their taxable child care benefit. The parties have each committed $5-billion for their respective versions of helping families pay for care. But snappy election slogans don’t necessarily make for good public policy.

The Tory plan has been widely exposed for the crassness of its timing and its limitations as a creator of child care, but few have analyzed the NDP’s platform. The party gets credit for introducing child care to the discourse, but if Canada is to have its long awaited early learning and care program how the new money is spent will make a big difference. At maturity in 2023 the Mulcair promise provides a million new child care spaces costing parents only $15 a day. Excluded from the calculations are the million existing child care spaces, where parents can pay three to four times as much. It would be politically untenable for those parents to continue paying $60 a day while their neighbours get a new affordable child care spot.

Also not discussed, but well documented, is the state of child care. The sector is notorious for its lax oversight. Poor pay contributes to high staff turnover and consequently, questionable program quality. Low fees are understandably attractive to parents, but do nothing to attract qualified educators. There is not enough money in the NDP plan to do both.

The plan is dependent on the provinces and territories contributing 40 per cent of the funds. Quebec and Ontario are already claiming their current investments towards their share, while the other provinces/territories would need to double their child care spending to participate. So far none have volunteered. Importantly there is no commitment to restrict new funding to community child care. As seen here and elsewhere, the private sector is highly nimble at seeking out public funds. Any new daycare could have a decidedly corporate look. Moreover, even if the plan delivers as anticipated and the number of child care spaces in Canada doubles, only 40% of youngsters will have access.

When $5-billion in new public spending barely moves the child care yardstick it’s time to rethink the ask. The kind of early education and care system capable of measurably producing the child outcomes the scientists document would cost more. OECD member states spend about 1.1 % of their GDP on early childhood programs. Canada devotes only 0.6% of its GDP or about half the OECD average.

Yet, if spent wisely, $5-billion would be an excellent start. Those countries topping international early childhood rankings rely not only on public funding, but public delivery to provide good programming for their kids. In the Canadian context, rather than building a new public infrastructure from scratch, it is worth tapping the resources available in public education. Full day kindergarten is now the norm across Canada, including most 5 year olds and many 4 year olds. $5-billion could open up early kindergarten to every 3 and 4 year old in the country.

Universal preschool provides a modern approach to the child care dilemma, reflecting a reasonable division of responsibilities between Ottawa and the provinces/territories. The Government of Canada would focus on the rights of all young children to quality early education while the provinces and territories would design complementary child care options to meet workforce needs. Federal funds for preschool could flow using bilateral agreements containing understandings to ensure the intended outcomes for children. Amounts would be based on the preschool-age population in each region.

Critics of education ‘taking’ children from child care complain that schools don’t assist women’s equity goals or working parents’ need for care. In reality schools take on considerable care functions and when it comes to the working poor are doing the heavy lifting. The majority of low-income parents do not work traditional daycare hours; meaning public investment in child care bypasses their children, while expanded kindergarten would include everyone’s child. In addition, no fee early kindergarten would relieve working families of much of their child care costs and free up existing provincial/territorial child care resources to address the needs of younger children.

With the choices now on offer, Canadian families can opt for the “No Child Care Benefit” of Mr. Harper’s party or the possibility of “more mediocre child care” with Mr. Mulcair’s. They deserve a third option. After the polls are tallied and the slogans left behind, hopefully Canadian policy makers will pause to consider an early childhood strategy guided by the same standards of evidence that would convince the scientists.

Margaret Norrie McCain is a Companion of the Order of Canada, received for her work in early childhood education and is co-author of the three Early Years studies.

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