Don’t expect much from Liberals’ pre-primary scheme

This is a guest post by Joanne Hussey, who knows much more about the child care and pre-primary sectors in Nova Scotia than I do. Joanne is a researcher with the provincial NDP caucus, and ran as a candidate in the most recent provincial and federal elections. This post is re-printed from Facebook with her permission.

JH post.jpg
photo: Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada)

 

I provided fair warning that my personal long form rant on the Liberal government’s pre-primary scheme was forthcoming and today’s the day!

Let’s start with some things we can all agree on:
– Public investment in services and supports that lead to improved health and developmental outcomes for children is a great idea
– Significant public investment in child care is long overdue
– A lack of accessible child care is hurting families, women, the economy and progress on gender equity

So, with that as a starting point, please allow me to air my grievances.

A universal, accessible system of child care was recommended by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1970. The Federal Liberal Party has been running on child care for the past 24 years (it first appeared in the 1993 Red Book). The provincial government is currently in talks with the federal government to develop a bilateral agreement on child care but we’ve been here before. Bi-lateral funding agreements have existed on child care but have not done anything to address the hodge-podge patchwork which passes for child care in this province. It is unclear who is being consulted in the development of this agreement and given recent reports by the Canadian Press that this funding will not be allowed to be spent on existing programs, I am doubtful it will result in meaningful change.

In the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, the Liberal platform pitched its pre-primary program as child care. Pre-primary is not child care. Pre-primary is an early childhood education program that will be made available for 4-year-olds during the school day. Most working parents require child care that extends far beyond the hours of 8:30am to 2:45pm. Families who will be able to utilize this new program will often need to make arrangements for wrap-around care (before and after school) which currently does not exist in this province for 4-year-olds.

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photo: Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada)

Another reality not addressed by what has been announced to date is how the government plans to address the potential financial impact of the introduction of pre-primary on the child care sector. This government does not have a great track record with showing sensitivity to the needs of the child care providers. While the Department was reviewing the grant system in 2015, new centres were prevented from applying for and accessing funding. This created significant financial challenges for months for the 15 child care providers in the province who had to operate without this support. A new grant structure was introduced in the spring of 2016. This new structure set wages for Early Childhood Educators and capped parent fees; however, the increase in funding from the government was not sufficient to bridge this gap. Parent fees are the only revenue source for child care providers (outside of public funding) and wages are the primary cost. Many child care providers met the announcement of these grants with grave concern that the sustainability of their operation was being threatened by this new system. For the first time, some centres were operating at a deficit. Acting without consultation and with a limited understanding of the sector runs the risk of destabilizing a sector that many depend on.

“What does that have to do with pre-primary?” you ask. Well, because of child care licensing requirements, the number of early childhood educators needed in a child care classroom of 4-year-olds is less than the number of early childhood educators required in a child care classroom of 2-year-olds. So, the cost of providing care for older children is less than the cost of providing care for younger children. This is reflected in lower parent fees for older children. However, even with the difference in fees, the amount of money a child care centre brings in to cover costs is higher for a classroom of 4-year-olds than it is for a classroom of younger children. Perhaps, in the current market-based system, fees for toddlers are artificially low and fees for preschoolers are artificially high, but this is the model centres are operating in. The fees from pre-school classrooms are critical to the economic viability of most child care centres. A move to a system of pre-primary will need to include a new system of operating funding for child care centres with significant new investment. Given that the government just finished reviewing and modifying the grant structure, are they prepared to go back to the drawing board? If pre-primary is introduced without this, it is very likely child care spaces in the province will be lost.

And what about the education system? Who on earth would look back on the past year – the first province-wide teachers’ strike in the history of Nova Scotia! – and think “Now would be a great time to introduce a brand new program into schools!” At this time it is unclear how this program would be integrated into schools. Do schools have space available that is appropriate? What legislation will set out the requirements for these classrooms? Will new legislation be required? What will the curriculum be? Will 4-year- olds be eligible to be bussed to school?

The question of who will teach pre-primary classes is another complicated and critical one. Early childhood educators and school teachers have different training and legislated responsibilities. The majority of child care workers in the province are currently not unionized, and wages have typically been quite low. In contrast, school teachers are members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and, with the exception of Bill 75, have negotiated contracts. At this time, it seems that neither the union representing some Early Childhood Educators nor the NSTU have been consulted about their possible roles in the delivery of a pre-primary program.

To return to the points I think we can agree on: if our province is going to attract and retain young people, grow the economy and increase the wellbeing of the population, we need significant investment in quality, affordable, accessible child care. We need to do the difficult work of building a system of early learning and child care in consultation with the sector and with parents. Ultimately, pre-primary programs may have a place within that system. However, hastily pushing forward additional pre-primary pilot sites without adequate thought or partnership will do little to meet the needs of families. Unfortunately, given this government’s track record of listening and working well with others, our premier seems more likely to stomp his feet and yell “You’re not the boss of me!” much like some of the 4-year-olds who may be heading to school in September.

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