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Archive for the ‘KIndergarten Programs’ Category

The Toronto Globe and Mail’s six part series, The Daycare Project, has put Early Years Education back where it belongs on the public policy agenda.  From October 19 to 26, Erin Anderssen and her team did a masterful job presenting the challenge facing the Canadian and provincial governments attempting to provide safe, secure, high quality daycare and early years education.

Since the federal child education initiative, developed by the Hon. Ken Dryden (costed at $5 billion over 4 years), was abandoned in 2006 by the incoming Stephen Harper government, provinces have been scrambling to come up with plans of their own.  Access to high quality, affordable child care presents serious problems for ordinary working families.  Even today, the shortage of government-regulated space remains among Canada’s most pressing child-care problems. Across the country, families are forced to rely on the “grey market” – and, Anderssen discovered, “leaving their children with caregivers who may not even have first-aid training, paying whatever is asked, and hoping for the best.”

ChildCareCostsProponents of universal state funded early learning, championed by Margaret McCain and the Canadian Council for Early Child Development, are doggedly determined in making their case.  While The Globe and Mail series had a universal publicly-funded early learning tilt, it also demonstrated quite conclusively that the Quebec model of $7.00 per day early learning costing $2.3 billion annually is cost prohibitive in other provinces. Indeed, Quebec’s current plan accounts for two-thirds of the $3.7 billion now being spent by all governments.

The Daycare Project series went beyond simply analyzing, once again, the public policy conundrum, and attempted to look for successful models that might be applicable in other countries or provinces.  A survey of daycare regimes in seven different countries seemed to give the nod to that of Sweden, a universal, affordable, education-based system developed over a 20 year period from 1970 until the early 1990s.  The Swedish model is highlighted, but no mention whatsoever is made of Finland where early education begins at age 7.  Most educational comparisons of Sweden and Finland  tend to highlight the superior performance results achieved by Finnish students.

When it came to Canada, The Globe and Mail, for once, looked to a province other than Ontario for its exemplar.  “For a top-notch child care system close to home,” Anderssen stated, “Canadians should look to the nation’s smallest province.”  In choosing PEI as the best Canadian model, the series ruled out Quebec as being too expensive and instead endorsed a model combining public and private services, but largely architected by Kathleen Flanagan, an OISE student of Dr. Charles Pascal. In short, the PEI model is Ontario, modified and improved.

The Ten Lessons presented by Anderssen to guide the national policy discussion pay lip-service to the $7 a day Quebec model, and are drawn overwhelmingly from the PEI experience over the past two or three years. “Good education and a modern family policy can start long before kids arrive at kindergarten,” she concludes, before presenting this laundry list of lessons:

1. Make the economic case clear

2. Call it education

3. Create enough regulated care spaces

4. Make fees affordable, consistent – and capped

5. Train the teachers – and pay them for it

6. Location, location, location

7. Infant care is complicated

8. After-school care shouldn’t be an afterthought

9. Parents are part of the system

10. Set a target, track your progress

Most of the identified “lessons” are sound, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that the PEI model is scalable.  It’s a tiny province with a population of 140,000, one-tenth the size of Montreal, with fewer than 6,000 children under five years of age. The total cost of its early childhood education initiative is only $7 million, compared to the more than $2.3 billion Quebec child care system.  Declining school enrollments also mean that PEI schools have plenty of surplus space, unlike most of Canada’s fast growing suburban school districts.

Omitting Ontario from the cross-national comparison was quite instructive.  While the Ontario Liberal Government has been quick to proclaim the success of its $1.5 billion full-day kindergarten program, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. By imposing full-day kindergarten, that province has incited much opposition, mainly centred on its full steam ahead bulldozing strategy.

Why did Ontario become such an early learning battleground? Private and coop day care operators facing dislocation have found common cause with the Institute of Marriage and Family in Canada. The universalists, spearheaded by Dr. Pascal, hit a brick wall in the form of Don Drummond whose 2012 Austerity Report dismissed full-day kindergarten as an unaffordable social program.  In addition, family values advocates have found the weak spot in the Ontario plan – the by-passing of the family in the continuum of early child care. In many ways, there is much more to be learned from Ontario than from Quebec and PEI on the matter of achieving better early childhood education.

Where might Canadian education policy makers look for models of how to improve early childhood education in Canada?  Why are the Quebec and Ontario models no longer seen as viable, affordable policy options?  Do provinces like Nova Scotia have more to learn from Ontario and Finland than from PEI?  Where do parents and families fit in the proposed childcare models? In simplest terms, who is framing the national early learning debate, and for what real purpose?

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A recent Ontario study of some 700 children attending the new Full-Day, Two-Year Kindergarten program claimed that the first cohort was better prepared to enter Grade 1, showing  strong language development, improved communications skills, and better social skills.   That report was welcome news for an Ontario Liberal Government, now headed by Kathleen Wynne, that has staked its reputation on a $1.5 billion program that critics characterize as an expensive form of government controlled day care.  If the gains are real, then the key questions become – do the gains justify the enormous costs and will the head start last?

KindergartenKidsBritish Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec also offer all-day Kindergarten,  but Alberta has delayed its planned implementation because of financial pressures.  In Nova Scotia, the Darrell Dexter NDP Government  has followed a curious, meandering course.  On August 22, 2013, on the eve of a provincial election, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex  announced the plan to open  four little bundles of joy – in the form of spanking new Early Years Centres  for young children in elementary schools scattered across the province.  Initial indications are that universal early learning in Nova Scotia, if it materializes, will most likely be implemented piecemeal, in stages.

Early learning advocates, inspired by the late Dr. Fraser Mustard and his Council on Early Child Development, have long identified Nova Scotia as a laggard among the Canadian provinces.  In November 2011, Dexter and his cabinet were stung by the CECD’s Early Years Study 3 ranking Quebec and P.E.I. as tops and giving Nova Scotia low marks (five out of 15 points) for its current patchwork of programs. Since then pressure has mounted on the NDP government to embrace universal, publicly-funded ECD starting at age two in Nova Scotia.

Universal, publicly funded programs like that in Quebec, where parents pay $7.00 per day per child, have proven to be enormously expensive.  Former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden made an initial effort, but it stalled in 2006 at the federal level and the campaign was, until 2010, sputtering in both Ontario and Nova Scotia.

With the passing of its legendary champion Dr. Mustard, philanthropist Margaret Norrie McCain started carrying the torch for universal, state-funded early learning programs, utilizing the considerable influence of the Margaret and Wallace Family Foundation.

Eighteen months ago, with Ontario’s Liberal government threatening to scale back on its $1.5 billion full day junior and senior kindergarten (FDK) spending, McCain and the universalists began focusing on Nova Scotia. On February 9, 2012, she secured a private audience with Dexter. That’s what finally swayed the cautious-by-nature Premier.  

One Thursday in late May 2012, Dexter visited a Halifax family resource centre and—without any warning—announced that Nova Scotia was embarking on Early Years programs in a big way. He unveiled a discussion paper, Giving Children the Best Start, and local media scrambled to report that a previously unannounced advisory committee would be producing a go ahead plan within a month’s time.

The policy paper recycled CECD research and claimed that one out of every four Canadian children “arriving at school with vulnerabilities” was “more likely to fail” out of school with limited life outcomes. Not surprisingly, it strongly endorsed a universal, school-based, state-funded early childhood education program for children as young as two years.

When Dexter and Jennex welcomed the report, it looked like the NDP government was preparing to buck the national trend to austerity by embarking on a costly public spending program.  In July of 2013, the McCain Foundation greased the wheels by investing $500,000, at $100,000 a year, to kick-start the program and fund Early Years Centres.

AffordableEarlyLearningThe McCain campaign for universal pre-school education is not about winning widespread support from daycare operators, parents or families. In early February 2012, Kerry McCuaig, a Toronto-based CECD research fellow, let the cat out of the bag. “It’s political leadership that matters,” she told a Halifax Public Forum, and the Ontario FDK initiative showed that there is “no real need to seek a public consensus.” What about the existing private and non-profit day cares spread across the province?   “There’s a dog’s breakfast of programs out there, “ McCuaig stated. “ Let’s reorganize it. It costs us nothing to do so.”

Nova Scotia’s bold plan for universal Early Childhood Development will, it is now clear, be entering the province through the back door.  That way the government can side-step and delay the whole thorny issue of accommodating the 220 existing private day cares and 160 non-profit day cares currently operating here in the province.

Going to the top is the preferred mode of operations for those promoting single platform publicly-funded programs for every child. The lighthouse universal ECD program, after all, was initiated by the late Dr. Mustard and fully implemented in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.  Top down leadership worked in Quebec, Ontario and P.E.I.  Here in Nova Scotia it has – so far– produced a typical ad hoc, staged implementation policy response.

How beneficial is universal, government-run Early Learning?  Should such universal programs begin as early as age 2?  Are such universal programs affordable for governments facing long-term financial challenges? What’s the impact of introducing such programs on families, as well as private and coop (not-for-profit day) cares?  What is gained – and lost- in implementing a single platform system? 

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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?

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