Daycare system near collapse, advocates say

TheStar.com – parentcentral.ca/Education
March 22, 2010.   Laurie Monsebraaten

The loss of $63.5 million in federal child care cash next month and the fall launch of all-day kindergarten for 4- and 5-year olds is creating the “perfect storm” in Ontario’s child care system, advocates warn.

If Queen’s Park doesn’t pick up the loss in Thursday’s budget, at least 7,600 child care subsidies will disappear, fees will rise and parents may not be able to work, they say.

“We are facing a catastrophic collapse of the child care system in this province,” said Andrea Calver of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care.

“With the loss of those subsidies, centres will have to lay off staff, parent fees will have to rise and many programs will be forced close,” she said Monday.

Premier Dalton McGuinty blamed Ottawa as he faced a grilling on the issue in the Legislature Monday.

“Will he commit to keeping those child care spaces open or is he telling mothers and fathers across the province to quit their jobs and stay home with their kids?” asked NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

“I call upon my colleague to join us in the efforts that we are making to convince the federal government that they should restore that funding on a permanent basis,” McGuinty told the Legislature.

The federal money is part of $252 million in child-care funds Ontario received from Ottawa in 2006 when the Harper government cancelled a previous $5-billion national child care plan. Instead of spending all the money that year, Ontario spread it over four years to support about 7,600 new child-care subsidies. The last $63.5 million installment runs out April 1.

Last summer, Queen’s Park gave municipalities a one-time $18 million grant to keep the subsidies flowing until the end of the current school year. But without new money, municipalities say they will be forced to start cutting subsidies through attrition this summer.

Meanwhile, provincial officials say up to 48 per cent of child care centres across Ontario will lose 4- and 5-year-olds when the first phase of all-day kindergarten rolls out next fall.

Most of those centres have waiting lists for younger children and could use the space to expand. But few parents can afford full fees of $1,200 monthly or more. And without new subsidies, centres will be forced to lay off staff or close, putting more spaces at risk.

West End Parents’ Daycare in Toronto’s Dovercourt and College area, is already scrambling to make ends meet, said board member Tessa Sproule, whose 3-year-old son Daya is in the pre-school room.

If Queen’s Park doesn’t throw the system a financial life-line on Thursday, the centre may have to cut staff or raise parent fees or both, said Sproule, who is on maternity leave with her 4-month old daughter Shay.

And it means there may not be space for Shay when she returns to her job in digital television, she said.

Parent fees went up 7 per cent last year and are set to increase another 5 per cent this year—and that is before the possible cuts, she added.

She and her husband already pay $967 a month for Daya and will be paying another $1,200 next year if Shay is lucky enough to get a spot.

“I don’t know how much more parents are willing or able to pay,” said Sproule, 36. “If fees go up much more, we’ll be looking into a nanny because it doesn’t make financial sense for us. But I know many families don’t have this option and I don’t know what they will do.”

In 1992, Ontario was above the national average when it came to child care services, ranking 5th out of the 12 provinces and territories in percentage of children under 6 served in child care centres, according to the Child Care Resource and Research Unit, which has been tracking child care in Canada for two decades.

By 2008, Ontario had dropped to 9th place, serving just under 20 per cent.

“Ontario was Canada’s child care pioneer. But now we’re really falling behind,” said the unit’s Martha Friendly.

“If these cuts go through, we are looking at further destabilization, loss of subsidies, spaces and centres that will put us even further behind,” she said.

Every other province in Canada has managed the loss of federal child care funding without cutting services, noted researcher Kerry McCuaig of Better Child Care Education. And many are also investing in all-day kindergarten programs.

“When the Liberals introduced all-day learning, they promised to re-invest childcare funding for 4- and 5-year-olds back into the system,” she said.

“If they don’t, they will be using child care to pay for their early learning plan,” she said. “And that’s not what they told people they were going to do.”

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