Childcare centres at risk due to full-day kindergarten

The integration of full-day kindergarten into Ontario’s school system was first advertised to citizens in 2010. It was supposed to be an intelligence-fostering, early-relationship-cultivating, setting-our-children-up-for-success kind of initiative that would also save families money on daycare costs.

The provincial government cites research and praise from experts who believe that despite an insecure economy and a $16-billion provincial deficit, investing $1.5 billion total into the program by the September 2011 is a good idea for the betterment of our province’s future.

One of those quoted on the Ministry of Education’s website was former TD chief economist Don Drummond (listed as current at the time of publication). He said that investment in early learning is necessary to “reap the highest return on education dollars,” and claimed that the important question is whether we can afford not to make the investment, not whether the province can afford it.

Drummond is now the chair of the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services. In his report on government spending released Feb. 15, he advised the province to get rid of full-day kindergarten altogether.

According to major news outlets like Global Toronto and the Sun, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said in a speech to Toronto’s businesspeople on Feb. 13 that other costs will be cut, but full-day kindergarten is pressing on despite the cuts.

As of the 2011-2012 school year, 42 Scarborough schools offer full-day kindergarten, which makes up a portion of the 90 schools in the Toronto District School Board set to offer the service by this fall. The province’s intention is that by September 2014, all 317 Toronto elementary schools, 119 of which are in Scarborough, will offer all-day learning for four- and five-year-olds.

This is good news for parents who no longer have to pay for daycare and for schools that can enjoy the prospect of expanded facilities and more students. However, childcare centres are now facing dropping registration numbers and a daunting fear that they will have to close down due to this transition.

In a city council meeting last November, general manager of Children’s Services, Elaine Baxter-Trahair, indicated that five wards of Toronto, three of them in Scarborough, have more than 50 per cent of their childcare centres at risk of shutting down. Twenty-five to 49 per cent of centres in 13 other wards are also at risk. Among these are five Scarborough wards.

A staff report issued by Baxter-Trahair stated that “implementation of FDELK (Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten) is proceeding in the absence of a corresponding plan to simultaneously mitigate the program’s impact on the existing child care service system.”

In light of her presentation, City Hall agreed to request upwards of $54 million from the provincial government for childcare centres in order to make them better-equipped for younger children, and aid in maintaining their current spaces and subsidies. This will stand in addition to all of the costs already associated with full-day kindergarten.

Whether these expenses were unforeseen or simply not considered a roadblock for the full-day kindergarten concept, it is arguable that the high costs associated with the program may not be worth the vague potential benefits. Perhaps it is the provincial government’s pride at this point that is preventing them from being transparent, admitting that the program wasn’t necessarily the best idea, and withdrawing it in accordance with Drummond’s recommendations.

Perhaps they are just truly invested (no pun intended) in the all-day learning program. Whatever the case, the province will later discover if ignoring the chair of the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services on such an issue is a good idea when you’re dealing with a program costing billions of dollars that clearly has costs and consequences.

For now, Ontarians can continue to look forward to reaping the benefits of the program while childcare centres hold their heads up high and hope that they will not be forced to close their doors.