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Big changes coming to City of Ottawa's $84M daycare subsidy program: Childcare director warns subsidy recipients could get left behind

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Reevely, David
Publication Date: 
14 Feb 2013



OTTAWA — As the city changes the way it subsidizes daycare for young children, it’ll have to take care not to leave subsidy recipients at the back of the line waiting for spaces, warns the director of one of Ottawa’s biggest childcare agencies.

“It’s going to be about responsiveness,” said Kim Hiscott, the executive director of Andrew Fleck Child Care Services, which takes care of thousands of children in short- and long-term arrangements, about half of them in subsidized spaces. The city, which manages subsidies for poorer parents on behalf of the province, is going to have to be sure to get money into those parents’ hands quickly or else their children won’t get the spaces they need, she said.

Changes to the subsidy system have been in the works for months and they won’t take effect for at least a couple more years, but the city released a report Thursday explaining in general terms what it wants to do.

Currently, parents who are entitled to one of Ottawa’s 6,632 subsidized daycare spots have to find their way through an antiquated system that technically subsidizes spaces in daycares, not the children. Parents have to find the subsidized spaces themselves. They put their children on waiting lists — often at numerous day-care centres — and when a subsidized space comes open, then they formally apply to the city to confirm they’re actually entitled to it.

“This results in limited choice for parents, a diminishing service offering and challenges in prioritizing the children most in need,” the city report says. The dollar amounts aren’t trivial: the city is doling out $84 million in childcare subsidies this year, albeit with 80 per cent of that covered by the provincial government.

Rather than putting parents through that wringer, the city wants to offer “floating” subsidies that amount to vouchers for daycare service. Parents would apply and have their eligibility confirmed, and then they’d be able to pick any day-care provider with space available. The city will establish a going rate for care and be willing to pay that much, with parents picking up some of the cost according to their ability to pay.

Two things won’t change: First, the city won’t provide subsidies even to everyone who’s formally “eligible” for one, because the province doesn’t pay enough for the program to cover everyone; there’ll be a prioritized waiting list instead. And second, there won’t be enough day-care spaces in Ottawa for all the parents who want them, subsidized or not.

“We have a capacity issue in Ottawa,” said Hiscott. “It’s not just a capacity problem for families in receipt of subsidy. It’s a capacity problem for full-fee families, too.”

Parents often wait a year on a waiting list for any kind of space, sometimes more, she said. And what concerns her is the possibility that parents who are going to get subsidies will be delayed by the application process and find themselves behind parents who can afford to pay the full fees themselves.

The existing system has plenty of problems, Hiscott said (she called the proposed changes “really logical” in concept) but at least it guarantees several thousand subsidized spots across the city for poorer families. In theory, if the new system were implemented very badly, we could end up with parents entitled to subsidies and nowhere to use them.

“I hope that the city recognizes the importance of their role in planning for services for all families, regardless of eligibility for subsidized spaces,” she said, and she’s looking forward to helping sort out the details before the changes take effect over the next few years.

For daycare providers, it’ll also mean another round of upheaval even as many of them are still adapting to the provincial government’s move to full-day kindergarten, which has kept many four- and five-year-olds in their schools at times when their parents previously would have paid to have them cared for elsewhere.

Hiscott said that in the end, it’s not likely to affect the Andrew Fleck organization very much, but removing dedicated funding for subsidized spaces could be bad news for smaller agencies in neighbourhoods with relatively few kids that have had guaranteed business because they’ve had locked-in subsidies. There’s such a shortage of spaces, though, that even they might not really notice.

“One thing we know is that people will go to very great lengths and travel a long way for high-quality programs for their children,” Hiscott said.

-reprinted from the Ottawa Citizen

Entered Date: 
20 Feb 2013
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