Full-day learning deserves support

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Full-day learning deserves support
June 16, 2009

For Ontario to have the prosperous future we all want, we need all our children to have the best possible start in life. Yet, more than one quarter of our children arrive in Grade 1 significantly behind their peers, and evidence shows they never catch up.

No one’s life should be predetermined at such a young age.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has taken an ambitious step towards changing that by committing to full-day learning for 4- and 5-year-olds, starting next year. This is one of the recommendations in a report released yesterday by his early learning adviser.

Charles Pascal’s report, With Our Best Future in Mind, also calls for enhanced parental leave; turning child care centres into one-stop shops for everything needed by children under age 4 and their families; and before-and-after school daycare for children 12 and under.

If fully implemented, the $1 billion-a-year plan would end the existing patchwork of programs and create a seamless system that meets the needs of children and modern families.

But McGuinty has already warned that “we can’t do it all at once,” and that it may take longer than the proposed three years before all 4- and 5-year-olds have access to full-day learning.

“We’re required to take into account our economic circumstances,” he said, noting the government will do the best it can with an investment of $200 million in 2010 and $300 million the following year.

It is easy to see why McGuinty is wary of new challenges, with high price tags, at the moment. But he should not delay the plan.

Giving children the best start in life is as important for Ontario – and our economy – now as it was in 2007 when McGuinty promised it.

We cannot afford the status quo. We cannot afford to leave one quarter of our children behind. We cannot afford a system where parents refuse work because there is no affordable daycare.

In Quebec, 40 per cent of the cost of its early childhood program is covered by the additional tax revenues from mothers who were able to work because of it. A U.S. study found a $17 savings in health, justice and social spending for every dollar invested on needy young children.

As Pascal says, “there is no wiser investment for our best future.”

Finding the required money isn’t McGuinty’s only challenge. The report calls for a blended system of teachers and early childhood educators (ECEs) providing full-day programming. That, predictably, has raised the ire of unions representing elementary school teachers.

Only teachers can educate children, they say. Noting that ECEs are specifically trained for this work, Pascal’s well-researched report begs to differ. McGuinty ought to do what is in the best interests of our young children and their families and not be forced off that path by the teachers’ unions.

“We’re going to have to find a way to work together on this,” McGuinty said referring to the concerns of teacher unions. He could just as easily have been talking about municipalities, daycare workers, other professionals and parents.

Implementing Pascal’s report will require everyone to think a bit differently for the good of our children and the economic future of our province.

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