May 7, 2009

BC government should heed its own report on childcare


Do you remember the 2008 Throne Speech in which the provincial government launched a feasibility study on providing full day kindergarten for 5 year-olds and extending full day preschool options to younger children as well? Here’s a refresher:

A new Early Childhood Learning Agency will be established. It will assess the feasibility and costs of full school day kindergarten for five-year-olds. It will also undertake a feasibility study of providing parents with the choice of day-long kindergarten for four-year-olds by 2010, and for three-year-olds by 2012. That report will be completed and released within the year.

If you can’t seem to recall ever hearing about that report, you’re not alone. The report was quietly posted on the BC Ministry of Education website just before Easter this year (a little behind schedule) and left for interested web-surfers to discover for themselves. With no government news release announcing the report completion (that I could find), it’s hardly surprising that it received virtually no media attention. The only mention of the report that I have seen so far is in this article by Pieta Woolley in the online version of the Georgia Straight, and it came almost a month after the report’s release.

This is a pity because the Early Childhood Learning Agency produced an excellent report. Expanded Early Learning in British Columbia for Children Age Three to Five draws on the latest research on early child development and a year-long consultation with parents, childcare providers and other stakeholders to conclude that expanding early learning programs in BC is both desirable and feasible.

The Agency estimated the total operating costs to about $615 million per year for full day programs available to all three, four and five-year-olds. The report recommended that the program be introduced in stages over several years and even outlined next steps for the government to take right away, taking into account the fiscal constraints that the current recession imposes. Next steps include:

1. carrying out a detailed facilities analysis and starting to prepare space for programs;
2. creating a human resource strategy; and
3. developing program standards for full day kindergarten for five-year-olds and pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds

Yet, you won’t find any of the reports’ recommendations reflected in the BC Liberals’ election platform. The closest the current government comes to committing to action is this paragraph on the BC Ministry of Education website:

Based on the findings of the feasibility work and its commitment to expanding early learning, the British Columbia government is still committed to pursuing the vision for full day kindergarten and other enhanced early learning opportunities for our youngest learners as soon as reasonably possible. [emphasis added]

The NDP is not doing much better on the childcare front. Their platform states that they will introduce full day kindergarten for five-year-olds “as finances permit” (where have I heard that before?) and promise to create “targets and timelines to build an affordable, accessible, quality child care system” (but we are left to wonder what these targets and timelines might be).

Both parties have made it clear that childcare and early childhood education are not priorities for them, hiding behind the recession as an excuse. But there is no need to make children wait for quality early learning programs until after the recession. $615 million is not a trivial amount of money, but it is only about 0.3% of provincial GDP and, as a society, we can easily afford it if we make it a priority.

It is not only possible but also desirable to invest in early childhood education in times of recession. Because as Susan Prentice points out in Old Dollars, New Sense: Recent Evidence and Arguments about Child Care Spending, childcare is better seen as “a productive investment instead of an economic drain on the public purse – one that will more than pay for itself in the future.”

As an added benefit in these hard economic times, setting up a universally available province-wide preschool program will create jobs when they are most needed. New classrooms/early learning centres would have to be built, employing construction workers in the process. Additional teachers and early childhood educations will be required to staff the programs, creating jobs (which, incidentally, would be mainly filled by women – a group that has been largely ignored in the government’s stimulus package so far).

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