Ottawa’s $10-a-day child care promise should heed Québec’s insights about balancing low fees with high quality

In Québec, the biggest child care provider by far is schools. Here, children raise their hands at a care centre in Montréal in August 2006. CP PHOTO/Ian Barrett

New research from the University of Toronto captures how parents struggle to find a child care provider they feel comfortable with and can afford. Unless awarded a scarce fee subsidy, low-income families are priced out of government-regulated child care.

Those paying market fees would find it cheaper to send their toddlers to university. Child care expenses are a factor in why young adults in Canada are having fewer children, a trend with serious social and economic implications.

COVID-19 underscored what women knew all along. Faced with few viable options, mothers ended up exiting the workforce. Small wonder that the recent federal budget focused on reducing fees when describing its early learning and child care plans.

Ottawa’s plan to cut costs in half by next year, with the promise of $10-a-day child care fees within five years, throws a lifeline to thousands of households.

The federal government’s goals are inspired by Québec’s 20-year experience with low-cost child care, referencing it as a model for the rest of the country.

Yet Québec child care is about more than low fees.

As a researcher who has examined Québec’s early learning and care and the need for Canada to invest in early childhood education, I believe as Canada’s other provinces and territories develop their early learning and care plans, they should be aware of the unintended consequences of inexpensive child care — and the pitfalls of taking shortcuts.

No single ‘Québec model’

There is no single “Québec model.” There are three. The biggest child care provider by far is schools. Authorities are required to offer before- and after- school care for four to 12-year-olds. Over 370,000 children participated in school-delivered child care before the pandemic disrupted attendance.

The second single biggest group are the publicly managed centres de la petite enfance (CPE) (early childhood centres). Operated by parent-dominated boards, these centres enrol infants to preschoolers.

CPEs are entirely publicly funded, except for a government established daily fee of $8.35 paid by parents. A wage scale provides educators with a living wage, plus benefits and a pension plan — rare perks for those working in child care.

Read more: Canada's COVID-19 child-care plan must start with investing in early childhood educators

Spaces in CPEs are very much in demand but enrolment numbers have stagnanted in recent years to about 98,000 children.

The third group are private providers. These are a mix of commercial and non-profit operators, in addition to self-employed people who deliver child care out of their homes. All are licensed to serve children before they enter kindergarten. A subgroup of “subsidized” operators receive government funding in exchange for charging parents the $8.35 daily fee.

Among the private group, the fastest growing arm are the unsubsidized centres, with over 70,000 spaces. These set their own wages and market fees, but generous tax credits reimburse parents for most costs. Almost a third of Québec’s more-than-$4.2 billion early learning and child care budget goes out in tax credits.

Children standing on  playground bridge.
‘Centres de la petite enfance’ enrol infants to preschoolers. (Shutterstock)

Preference for non-profit providers

Over the years, private centres gained a reputation for poor quality. Learning from Québec, the federal government has ruled out tax measures or direct payments to parents to reduce fees and has indicated a bias for non-profit providers.

Some researchers blame the hyper demand from parents for low-cost care for the evolution of Québec’s fragmented early childhood services.

Reducing the cost of care is a critical goal, but a low fee for parents doesn’t necessarily translate into an enriching experience for children.

Fee reductions must be partnered with interventions to promote quality. Québec has had to responded to charges of poor quality early learning and care, the jumping of waitlists into choice spots and even patronage in the awarding of contracts for new centres.

For example, amended child care legislation now requires all providers to adopt an updated curriculum and document children’s progress. Inspections are more frequent and go beyond basic health and safety checks to observe how educators interact with children and provide feedback for improvement. Results are publicly posted. To tackle access bias, operators are required to enrol only those at the top of a government-administered, online registration site. Cross-sector committees advise the ministry on where new centres will be placed.

Expansion through schoools

More recently, Québec’s government is showing a preference for expanding early learning and care through its schools, rather than by priming the child care market with payments to parents. New policy requires all schools to provide kindergarten for all four-year-olds by 2023, with the choice of before- and after- care for working parents.

Pre-kindergarten offers small classes taught by a teacher with a preschool speciality, supported by an early childhood educator. Over the past year, despite the pandemic, Québec opened 995 new pre-kindergarten classes, almost meeting its 1,010 target.

In contrast, deficiencies in child care are difficult to rectify. The government’s goal of creating 13,500 subsidized spaces by next year is stalled at 2,500. To bump production it is going after the “red tape” originally put in place to provide transparency.

A report by the province’s auditor general finds 46,000 families looking for care, many of them low-income, while operators skirt their legal obligation to enrol children on the centralized waitlist.

Of Québec’s three child care streams, expanding through schools is proving to be effective as well as efficient. Any government looking to build good early learning and care should take a closer look.

Kerry McCuaig receives funding from Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation, the Lawson Foundation, the Atkinson Foundation, the Government of Canada, the City of Toronto.

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