Doug Ford is the only premier who has yet to sign Ottawa’s $10-a-day child-care deal. He’s right to push back

Posted on January 26, 2022 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Business/Opinion
Jan. 25, 2022.   By Armine Yalnizyan, Contributing Columnist

Affordable child care is throttling our ability to bounce back from the pandemic, but Doug Ford is right — the numbers just don’t add up, Armine Yalnizyan writes.

This may stop you in your tracks, but I sympathize with Doug Ford’s hesitation to sign on to Ottawa’s national early learning and child care program, which has the goal of providing Canadian parents with $10-a-day child care for children younger than six within the next five years.

What we know so far is that Ottawa is offering the province of Ontario $10.2 billion dollars to meet that target. The funding has two main goals: lower costs for parents, and increased access to high-quality, licensed early learning and child care.

So I know how preposterous my position sounds.

After all, I’ve been arguing non-stop that a lack of high-quality, affordable child care is throttling our ability to bounce back from the pandemic, not just for businesses and our economy as a whole, but for the women who have been trying to do it all, the paid and unpaid work in and outside the home, with more aggravation than help from the province.

So why might stalling an agreement with only 128 days before the next provincial election be reasonable?

Because, simply put, the government of Ontario, or any government in its position, would be setting itself up for failure. It won’t be able to meet the required federal targets because the scale of what needs to be done to lower costs and expand high-quality access is enormous.

Most of the federal money would simply go toward lowering the highest parent fees in the country, with little left to add new capacity; a political no-win for politicians who must also address the huge and growing need for more care that the pandemic has unleashed.

A main stumbling block has been that Ontario wants the feds to either give it more money, or acknowledge the care it already provides in full-day kindergarten, which costs the province $3.6 billion annually.

[ See Chart:  How would targets for Ontario compare to other jurisdictions? ]

Ottawa did just that in its agreement with Quebec, which will see it provide $6 billion over the next five years, and takes into account the $2.7 billion the province already spends on its child-care system. It makes no sense that Ontario’s success in providing early learning and child care to the vast majority of four-year-olds through full-day kindergarten isn’t included, because excluding it makes meeting federal access targets unachievable.

So there’s merit in Ford’s position. And legitimate concerns.

As of Tuesday, every province and territory had signed a deal with the feds except Ontario. Every deal requires that the fees parents pay for licensed/regulated spaces be cut in half by the end of 2022, and average $10 a day in five years.

Ontario had the greatest number of licensed child-care spaces for newborns to five-year-olds anywhere in the country, including Quebec, before the pandemic hit. It’s not clear how many still exist.

But with more than 309,270 licensed spaces in Ontario in 2020, the price tag for bringing down parents’ costs further, and for more people, will be more expensive here than anywhere.

What gets less air time but is equally key in these deals is that federal funding aims to provide 59 per cent of children aged newborn to five with access to licensed child-care spaces in five years’ time.

Why 59 per cent?

Because that was the share of Quebec children aged newborn to five who had access to licensed spaces when Ottawa’s strategy was designed, and consequently provides a realistic goal.

In Ontario, only 33 per cent of children in this age group had access to licensed child care in 2020. Getting to 59 per cent coverage by 2027 would require adding 204,118 new spaces, requiring a bigger expansion than anywhere else in Canada.

This might require more builds than other jurisdictions if it weren’t for what we already excel at in Ontario: full-day kindergarten.

That programming serves 130,000 four-year-olds.

The feds don’t want to count it because kindergarten is considered education, and education is a strictly provincial file. But the feds support post-secondary education, and the argument to support preschool, too, is strong — perhaps stronger. This puts junior kindergarten in a different light.

Without doubt, full-day junior kindergarten is qualitatively different from licensed child care. It’s totally free to parents. It’s in school, so quality controlled. It’s guaranteed to be in a neighbourhood near you (with or without free bus service). It builds on existing publicly owned assets, so is cheaper to provide.

But it’s only available from 8:30 or 9 a.m. to 3 or 3:30 p.m. Most working parents need longer hours of care.

Still, access to full-day kindergarten has become foundational to our workforce.

In Ontario, 88 per cent of four-year-olds and 92 per cent of five-year-olds are enrolled in full-day kindergarten. That’s more than anywhere else in Canada.

Excluding its provision is bewildering, because the feds just signed deals funding movement toward this goal for four-year-olds in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Nova Scotia.

Ontario also requires, by law, that schools provide before-and-after school care if parents ask for it.

Half of Ontario’s school boards and 80 per cent of schools offer it, for a fee, though only about a third of four- and five-year-olds are enrolled. That’s because the median fee for beforeand-after care is $25 a day on a school day, and $42 on non-school days.

Cutting that cost in half for parents by the end of 2022 will mean more parents will ask for before-and-after care, too, requiring more staff and resources.

In any jurisdiction, the quickest route to expanding access to high-quality regulated care for preschoolers is building on our pre-existing, universally accessible infrastructure.

The biggest piece of that puzzle is the public school system, which provides the lowest-cost, best-quality foundation to build on anywhere in Canada. It is already most advanced in Ontario.

Finally, Ontario is the only province where municipalities and regional governments fund, manage and even deliver early learning and child care.

Evidence from Ontario and other provinces shows why schools and local governments provide a real edge in providing quality care: their superior wages and working conditions attract and retain more staff.

A pandemic lesson learned from health care and long-term care is that spaces don’t matter if there’s no staff.

Across the country, finding enough qualified early childhood educators (ECEs) is challenging because of terrible wages and working conditions.

Provinces like Alberta have deregulated care (both child-staff ratios, and qualifications of caregivers) to increase supply.

Provinces like Nova Scotia have increased programming in pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds, and ECEs who left the field have returned.

Improved wage grids are part of the solution in some but not all fed-prov deals. It needs to be part of the Ontario deal, if we are going to be able to meet parent expectations and expand. Currently, without lower costs, ECEs often work 12-hour days. This isn’t sustainable.

The feds are offering $10.2 billion to reduce parent costs, expand access and improve wages and working conditions in Ontario. If it seems incomprehensible that Ontario hasn’t grabbed it, there exist some rational, not political, considerations.

I don’t have information about what is happening at the bargaining table, nor insights into the province’s logic or strategy.

And boy, is it frustrating for parents, businesses and economists to watch what looks like incompetence or senseless inaction.

But from where I sit, Ontario is right to hold out for now … until it gets a better deal, and soon.

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