Early childhood education and care in Ontario: A roller coaster heading in reverse

The past two weeks have seen the care and education of our province’s youngest children treated in a shockingly cavalier manner by Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson and the Ford government.

First the Minister floated the idea of lifting class size caps in full-day kindergarten and elementary given “the province’s current fiscal circumstances”, then backtracked claiming it is just “one option” for consultation. The Minister suggested another option a few days later when, under questioning from the media, she shared that while full-day kindergarten would be guaranteed this fall; beyond that was open for consultation too. That idea was later backed up by Premier Ford, who claimed “there’s a lot of areas of education that are broken that need to be fixed.”

These trial balloons put parents, educators, and researchers into high gear: pointing to the studies on the myriad benefits of FDK, the importance of low class sizes, the dynamics of the teacher-educator partnership etc. Finally, the Minister was forced to quell the “speculation” that her own statements had inspired and promise that full-day kindergarten was not under threat. But many questions on the government’s plans for the program remain and parents and educators need to remain vigilant.

Meanwhile the Minister was busy trying to have a media event to promote the government’s changes to home child care and before- and after-school care proposed in the omnibus Bill 66: The Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act. These changes involve allowing more very young children in regulated and unregulated home child care settings and allowing younger children to attend recreation programs instead of licensed child care before and after school, often with higher group sizes and lower staff qualifications.

Minister Thompson has received plenty of criticism about these proposals too, but seems to be barreling ahead regardless.

During her press conference the Minister described what some of these changes would look like. Thompson enthusiastically provided an example of a setting in which eight children, including three babies, would be in the care of one person in a private home. When done right, home child care can be a wonderful place for young children, but these numbers stretch care too thinly. Setting aside safety concerns, does the Minister of Education seriously think that those eight children’s needs are being well met or that they are receiving enough individual attention to thrive? Or do their needs get trumped by those of business owners?

The thread that ties changes to kindergarten and child care together is Ford’s mantra “Open for Business”. That business now seems to include the care and education of our youngest children. What happens when you put together kindergarten cuts, child care deregulation, and last summer’s removal of the child care for-profit threshold? Add in a tax rebate to parents, as Ford promised during the election, and you get a market ripe for the expansion of big box child care.

That endgame is laid bare in a Toronto Sun op-ed by Andrea Hannen of the largely for-profit Association of Daycare Operators’ Ontario (ADCO). Seemingly emboldened by the new government, this usually hush-hush lobby group openly muses about a future in which “child care centres could once again be tasked with providing kindergarten programming.”

Under the guise of “restoring choice”, the for-profiteers want to get back to the days when the education of kindergarten children was part of their private market. But most parents I know, when given the choice to pad the hedge funds of foreign investors in a big box preschool, would really rather that we stick with full-day kindergarten thank you very much.

And the study of child care fees across Canada released last week showed just how ineffective tax credits or rebate schemes are in addressing rising child care fees.

With so much at stake, it’s more important than ever for child care and education partners to stand united against the Ford government agenda to cut, deregulate, privatize and repeat.

Of course, the non-profit child care community faced challenges when full-day kindergarten was introduced a decade ago. Many described it as a roller coaster, trying to retrofit, adjust and staff their centres to serve younger children, often without enough government support to make the changes. Some closed their doors, but most stuck it out, and a decade later the child care community was looking forward to steady, measured expansion of licensed child care spaces and, finally, decent investments to address affordability and a workforce strategy. There is no clamour in the non-profit child care community to get back on the rollercoaster, this time in reverse.

Similarly, teachers and Registered Early Childhood Educators in full-day kindergarten, who have spent a decade strengthening teaching partnerships, will not allow the government to pit them against their colleagues in a hunger games of who will have a job in two years.

Finally parents, we must not allow ourselves to be suckered in by those promising money in our pockets and peddling false choices. Ontario’s children are not a business opportunity.

Carolyn Ferns is the Policy Coordinator for Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care.