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Universal child care: Lessons from Quebec [CA]

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Fortin, Sarah
Publication Date: 
1 Nov 2004

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Since its inception, Quebec's universal childcare program has been seen across Canada as an exceptional model and the standard to which early childhood education and care should aspire. Just last week, an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report singled out Quebec as an example for the rest of the country.

As Minister of Social Development Ken Dryden and provincial social service ministers prepare to meet today to discuss turning the Liberal promise for a national childcare system into reality, it is an opportune time to take a closer look at the advantages and drawbacks of Quebec's experience.

The best-known feature of the Quebec model is the $7-a-day daycare program, attended by about 130,000 children.

But Quebec also provides full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds and after-school care for kindergarten and primary school children. Overall, it spends about $3 billion a year on families.
The Quebec experience suggests you cannot get universal early learning on the cheap. A similar Canada-wide system would ultimately cost in excess of $10 billion annually.

Current federal commitments and the promise of investing an additional $5 billion over five years pale against the actual financial need. Provinces will probably be unable to inject significant additional funds, since their budgets are already stretched thin.

Short of putting significantly more money on the table, hard choices will have to be made and priorities clearly established.

In that respect, Quebec provides two key lessons on accessibility and quality.

In terms of accessibility, Quebec's $7-a-day program, regardless of family income approach to daycare, clearly favours upper-income families.

Economist Pierre Lefebvre has shown that the proportion of children attending daycare increases steadily with family income and that children from upper-income families are overrepresented among those in subsidized daycare.

This suggests middle- and upper-income families benefit most from this system and that the rest of Canada would do well to identify an appropriate level of parental contribution.

The Quebec experience also shows that universality does not necessarily translate into quality care for all children.

From the perspective of the rest of the country, given these problems and deficiencies, emulating Quebec may not only be unrealistic in terms of public spending but also unwise if the objective is to provide quality care for all children.

In fact, in light of the Quebec experience, the current situation of daycare services in most other provinces, as well as available and proposed funding, it seems there are two options:

- One is to support working parents with good quality care programs with a fair parental contribution. In that case, developing a regulated family-care network could be considered. In fact, this is the preferred mode of care in Quebec, especially for children under 2 years old, second only to care in the child's home.

- A second option is to target and invest in children most at risk and thus foster school readiness.

What is often forgotten in the current public discussion about early childhood education is that data regarding the benefits of high-quality programs were collected from low-income and significantly disadvantaged settings, notably in the U.S. Less is known about the impact of attending similar high quality childcare for non- or less-disadvantaged children.

One way out of having to choose between either option is to copy Quebec and adopt a step-by-step approach.

In that regard, providing an educational environment through full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds, and then 4-year-olds, with qualified teachers, would meet both educational and care goals.

The lesson we can draw from Quebec is that adopting its model wholesale with the current proposed federal funds will probably not lead to the desired outcomes in terms of universality and high quality early learning.

However, the ministers would be on target in looking at what aspects of the Quebec model can help in building a national childcare program.

- reprinted from Toronto Star

Entered Date: 
5 Nov 2004
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