Do not abandon early learning idea

TheStar.com – Opinion/editorial – Do not abandon early learning idea
Published On Sun Nov 29 2009

Critics of Ontario’s plan to offer full-day kindergarten to all 4- and 5-year-olds have landed on the beguiling idea that we’d all be better off if the government simply gave parents the money instead.

“Parents could receive a minimum of $9,199 dollars per child, annually,” argues the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, a group dedicated to supporting “mom-and-dad marriage and family life.”

What parent wouldn’t accept thousands of dollars? But setting aside the questionable assumptions in the institute’s report, it illustrates a common myth: that all-day kindergarten is about helping parents.

If all-day kindergarten is combined with fee-based before- and after-school child care, it certainly will make it easier for many parents to work and reduce their child-care costs. But that is not the primary reason for doing it. Rather, full-day learning is about what’s best for children. Right now, more than one-quarter of our children arrive in Grade 1 significantly behind their peers, and too many never catch up. Children’s lives should not be predetermined at such a young age.

It doesn’t do taxpayers any good, either. As Premier Dalton McGuinty’s early learning adviser Charles Pascal points out, “Research has shown that it is more difficult and more costly to intervene later than it is to address a child’s needs in the early years.”

This is why McGuinty’s decision to begin implementing full-day kindergarten next September is the right move, even in the context of a $24.7 billion provincial deficit.

The provincial Conservatives are now expressing misgivings about the idea, given the deficit and the cost of the program ($1.5 billion when fully implemented). But McGuinty has not ignored Ontario’s situation. The deficit, coupled with a decision to opt for a more costly full-day teacher model, led McGuinty to stretch the recommended three-year rollout of the program to six years. That means the program will be getting a relatively modest $200 million in 2010 and $300 million in 2011.

Kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in Ontario, so parents don’t have to send their 4- and 5-year-olds to school all day. But abandoning a public program in favour of giving parents money to make their own choices is an approach that has been tried before – by Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives when they killed a national daycare program and replaced it with $100-a-month cheques to families. That move has already cost taxpayers almost $9 billion without creating a single child-care space, while the taxable cheques cover little more than a few hours of babysitting. Some choice.

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