How should we judge whether the new Ontario child care agreement with the federal government is a good one? There are many things to look for; I’ve written about this before. Yet, if I boil it down, the key concern is how quickly Ontario is able and willing to expand services – moving towards a quality universal system of child care for preschool children.
There are two issues here. First, does Ontario have an ambitious plan to expand not-for-profit licensed capacity? We know that Ontario will eventually need between 200,000 and 300,000 additional child care spaces. We also know that even with no additional funding from the Ontario government, there is enough federal money to expand by at least 100,000 spaces in the new four-year agreement. Without dramatic expansion NOW there will be shortages and long waiting lists. Without substantial expansion, lower income families will be pushed to the back of the line and employment barriers for mothers will still be high. Ontario’s target should be at least 150,000 spaces over the term of the agreement. Anything less will be a big problem.
The second issue is really the first issue (in priority). Expansion cannot happen without more trained early childhood educators. An early childhood educator must have a two-year college diploma and related practicum experience. All jurisdictions across Canada are short of fully qualified educators already and we will need a minimum of 20,000 more in Ontario for capacity to expand. It will not be possible to expand the supply of trained educators and maintain quality services without improving salaries and benefits substantially. Does the new Ontario agreement have substantial up-front money flowing to increase staff compensation? If not, you know the government is not really serious about moving towards universal affordable high-quality care.
There are two things we know will be in the Ontario agreement, because they form the federal government’s bottom line. There will be a cut in licensed child care fees to 50% by the end of December 2022. And Ontario will agree that fees will be down to an average of $10 a day by the end of 2025-26. But is there a plan to deal with the very large increase in demand this will create? Is there capital money in grants and loans? Is there up-front money to help municipalities and non-profit providers jump into the development process now? Ontario’s Action Plan should answer this. If it doesn’t, Ontario has been wasting the year they waited to sign the agreement.
It’s about time that Ontario signed up and started working on affordability, availability, quality, and inclusivity. Better late than never. But I am concerned that Ontario is only worried about pinching pennies and has not done the work to plan for transforming Ontario’s child care system to meet parents’ needs.