Dear Ontario: Licensing daycares won’t fix the real problems

Posted on in Child & Family Delivery System – Opinion
Jun. 07, 2017.   DENISE BALKISSOON

Does a licence matter when it comes to child-care providers? That’s the question I’m left with after the Ontario government’s anticlimactic announcement Tuesday about the future of affordable, accessible child care.

First, ministers Mitzie Hunter and Indira Naidoo-Harris tried to stir up some secondhand fanfare about last April’s budget pledge to create 100,000 new child-care spaces over the next five years: Sounds great, but you already said that. Then, they launched into a meandering stream of new promises without landing on any solid details or dates.

Ontario’s child care will be affordable, they said, though Ms. Naidoo-Harris couldn’t clarify a price point or subsidy structure. It will also be high quality, though the definition of that was also wobbly. Concrete answers are forthcoming in an “Affordability Strategy” led by an “expert,” some time soonish – either before, or maybe after, the June, 2018, provincial election.

The only thing that seemed certain was that licensing is important: The word was said with determination a number of times. All of the new daycare spots will be licensed, absolutely, and the fee that existing home daycare providers pay to get licensed will be eliminated. It’s a big promise, since currently about 28 per cent of daycare-aged children in Ontario are in licensed spots – but as the parent of a child in an unlicensed spot, I can’t figure out why it’s a particular goal.

Licensed centres are inspected regularly, which is good, as is the fact that big centres are where you find subsidized spaces. Staff members undergo police checks and there are more than one of them, which hopefully means that workers get sick days: My daycare provider, Kelly, has tagged out just once in the past 2-1/2 years. But the fact that it’s almost impossible to land a spot in one makes licensed centres unimportant to most parents in my circle.

Of course we want our kids to be in safe, nurturing places, but the way things are, we take what we can get, even if it’s across town. Before I found Kelly – whom I called from the sidewalk the minute I saw a sign in her window – my son was in another unlicensed home daycare, one I didn’t love, but options were scarce. I’m angry to think of the lack of choices for people with real financial constraints, and annoyed that Tuesday’s announcement was vague on when, how and where new subsidized spots will show up, as there are 14,000 kids currently on the waiting list in Toronto.

My three-year-old son adores Kelly, whose unlicensed home daycare is a bright, welcoming place where he spends his days with the legal maximum of four other kids under the age of five. Yes, it’s expensive, costing over 10 per cent of my family’s gross income: What I find frustrating about the cost is that it’s substantial for us, yet not a windfall for Kelly. This week’s promises don’t set out a clear path for fixing either problem.

While workers in child-care centres have been promised a $2 hourly wage increase (some day), there’s no plan to help the home daycare providers caring for thousands of Ontario kids take more money home. The only real promise made to home daycare providers was to eliminate the fees charged by private agencies, which then inspect and approve them on behalf of the province. Kelly says she decided not to get licensed when she opened because it seemed like shelling out 25 per cent of her income for no real gain.

Even though licensing will be free (by 2022 or so), it’s not going to be made mandatory, as a Ministry of Education spokesperson confirmed for me on Wednesday. So from what I can figure, that means good providers will get licensed and see their waiting lists grow even longer, while shady ones go on as usual and lower-income parents are still forced to make do. Meanwhile, Kelly says the only difference she can anticipate would be a small reduction in her insurance costs, maybe.

Like most of Tuesday’s announcement, the promise of more licences seems like an official-sounding way to say not very much. In any case, my kid turns four soon so excuse me, my new problem is after-school care.

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