Government support for child care and early learning programs has now become a “hot button” issue right across Canada. Much of the momentum for greatly expanded early childhood education has been generated by Dr. Fraser Mustard, Canada’s leading child care advocate. Early brain development has been linked to improved physical health, behaviour, and learning in later stages of life. Countries that provide universal early child development programs, Mustard contends, “out-perform’ those in which such programs are more “chaotic.” Fresh impetus was provided in January 2007 by the renowned University of Chicago economist James Heckman. “Redirecting funds toward the early years, ” he declared, “is a sound investment in the productivity and safety of American society and also removes a powerful source of inequality.”
Since the national child care plan proposed by Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden was abandoned in early 2006, the federal government has stepped back from providing universal, publicly-funded programs. With that policy shift, the initiative for reform has passed to the provinces. Among the provinces, Quebec stands out as a notable exception. Since 1997, that province has offered a full $5-per-day,now $7-a-say public day care program designed to support two-parent working families. In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has embarked upon an ambitious all-day kindergarten program for four- and five-year olds, based upon certified teachers and costing $1.5 billion over six years. Even Canada’s smallest province, P.E.I., has jumped on the bandwagon, moving kindergarten, for the first time, into elementary schools and offering a full-day, year round play-based program.
For reliable backgrounders, see http://www.ccl-cca.ca/CCL/Reports/StateofLearning/EarlyChildhood.html; and http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/ChildCare.pdf
Public policy is now being approached from two radically different perspectives. Child care advocates like Ontario’s Dr. Charles Pascal focus almost exclusively on giving children “the best educational start in life” to promote the long-term well-being of children, families and, ultimately, the economy. That approach draws upon Dr. Mustard’s research and upon that of J. D. Willms and the 2002 National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. “At least one in four young children is vulnerable,” according to Willms and the Canadian Council on Learning. In the absence of quality early learning programs, their chances of leading healthy and productive lives are limited, often because of social disadvantage.
Economic analysts and demographers come at the issue quite differently. Taking a more global perspective, Ian Munro of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) sees child care and early learning programs as possible solutions to Canada’s looming labour shortage, a problem particularly acute in Atlantic Canada. With our aging population and growing pension crisis, they are more worried about the potential for a sharp drop in our standard of living. If we cannot either increase the birth rate or attract more immigrants, the preferred alternatives are 1)increase the labour participation rate; and 2) improve the productivity of the workforce.
Better and cheaper access to child care and early learning programs can produce untold economic benefits. Reliable, quality programs will allow more parents ( chiefly mothers) to re-enter the workforce more quickly and more fully. It will also enable more couples to have families and others to have more children. Enhanced programs can improve the school-readiness of some youngsters and, if sustained by later educational programs, can help to reduce the incidence of youth crime, teenage pregnancy, alcohol/drug abuse, and welfare dependency. For the supporting evidence, see http://www.ontario.ca/en/initiatives/early_learning/ONT06_018869.html
Child care and early education spending can produce real socio-economic benefits, but Canadian economist Susan Prentice (2008) found the forecasted returns “giddily unrealistic.” One study of the Quebec public plan (NBER, 2005) reported that some 40% of the cost of the expensive program were recovered through increased income and payroll taxes generated by the increased numbers of working parents. An oft-cited University of Toronto study (1998) claimed that universal publicly-funded child care and ECE for all children (2 to 5 years) would have a significant payback. If the state paid 80% of the cost totalling $5.2 billion, the study saw double that value in economic returns. Most studies rely almost exclusively on American data, so their reliability can be questioned.
The emerging consensus is that investing in quality, reliable early childhood care and education makes good sense. Much of the public policy debate turns on which approach is best – universal, taxpayer-funded services or government support for “vulnerable children,” mostly drawn from poor and disadvantaged families. That leads to our Big Question: Should Child Care and Early Learning Programs be universal or targeted the those who need it most?
It may not be a simple either or question. Investing in young children could become, according to James Heckman, “a fundamentally important national strategy for building human capital, enhancing workforce productivity, and reducing welfare-type outlays.” Yet he also points out that children from favoured backgrounds are already “receiving substantial early investment” from their families, so there is little societal benefit for providing universal programs to them at zero or significantly reduced cost. In a 2006 Wall Street Journal column, Heckman went further: Paying for universal programs would be “inefficient, costly, wasteful of public dollars, and probably not effective in helping poor kids.”
Education remains the best road out of poverty, but what form should that early support take here in Canada?