Public schools can address Canada’s child-care deserts

Craig Alexander | The Globe and Mail, January 17, 2024

Excerpt: "There have been troubling developments on the child care and youth skills front. First, the share of children in care has fallen despite Ottawa reaching Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care agreements with all provinces and territories.

One can understand that shifting toward $10-a-day child care would increase demand that could, at least temporarily, exceed supply, but it shouldn’t lead to a lower percentage of children in care. Second, we had news that youth literacy and math skills continue their multidecade retreat from the level achieved in 2000, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment. Both trends need to be reversed.

Early learning and child care (ELCC) delivered through expanded school junior kindergarten programs at earlier ages should be part of the solution, yet this option is given little attention. The reason is related to Canada’s division of responsibilities between the federal government and the provinces, with education being in the provincial domain but the federal government having more financial capacity.

The federal government correctly identified that Canada was underinvesting in child care and that this added major costs to the economy due to lower female labour participation and less child skill development. In response, Ottawa set out to create universal and affordable ELCC with the provincial agreements and Bill C-35, which will provide federal funding so that parents pay just $10 a day for child care. This will raise enrolment predominately at licensed child-care centres.

The problem is that there are large parts of Canada, particularly rural areas, where it will still not be economically viable or attractive to run licensed centres. There is also a risk that licensed centres will favour certain segments of society. There are concerns about the quality of corporate child-care centres. And there will not be enough qualified staff to meet the increase in demand for educators because such positions are unattractive due to low wages and poor benefits.

One solution is to leverage the public school system and its existing infrastructure, which can allow rapid expansion while ensuring a stable work force and quality programs for children.

Schools already exist in every neighbourhood, meaning that expansion of prekindergarten at schools can ensure daytime access to ELCC and help to eliminate the current reality of child-care deserts in large parts of the country.

Public schools cannot turn away children, so they maximize inclusivity and diversity."

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