My opinion of British Columbia’s New Spaces Fund is shaped by the context. It’s a valuable, if imperfect, source of capital funding for the expansion of not-for-profit and public child care.
The context is that we’re not doing a good job in expanding the availability of child care services in Canada. That’s disappointing, of course, but also a danger to the ultimate success of the Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care program.
Without rapidly expanded capacity, most parents will not be able to benefit from $10 a day child care. Women will not be able to enter the labour force. The economic growth benefits of child care will not happen. Parents will be angry and frustrated at governments that have promised them services they can’t deliver. A new government may come in and turn everything over to the for-profit sector, loosening staffing regulations, and allowing operators to surcharge parents for “extras” to make providing child care more profitable.
The decision of federal and provincial/territorial governments to rely on the not-for-profit and public sectors for child care capacity was good for the long-run, but it’s having lots of problems in the short run. Not-for-profit and public services are typically of higher quality with better effects on children’s lives. Not-for-profit and public services become trustworthy community assets, here for the long term, in a way that for-profits do not, always anxious to sell assets or property to the highest bidder.
But, not-for-profits need more help to expand than the for-profits do. For-profits have better access to capital funding from the private sector than not-for-profits do; many banks and financial institutions are unwilling to make construction loans and mortgages to not-for-profit organizations. Most not-for-profit organizations find it too risky to make expansion promises until future on-going operational funding arrangements for services are settled; some for-profit organizations are willing to take a gamble that future operational funding will be generous, or that costs can be slashed to ensure a profit. On top of all this is the shortage of qualified early childhood educators. Not-for-profits are typically unwilling to expand until they can hire enough fully-qualified educators to run good-quality programs. For-profits are often willing to plan to operate without a full complement of trained staff, hoping they can get exemptions from government regulations and be able to operate with unqualified staff.
British Columbia’s New Spaces Fund is not perfect. Yet, in the context I’ve just described, it provides some important support for child care expansion to not-for-profit and public organizations in B.C. And that’s a lot more than I can say for most of Canada’s provinces, outside Quebec. The New Spaces program provides capital grants only to not-for-profit and public organizations who are willing and anxious to expand the supply of child care services. Previously, it was available to the for-profit sector who did not need it; that was a big mistake that has since been corrected. The budget last year was $292 million, about $84 million from provincial funds and the rest from federal funding under the Canada-Wide ELCC program.
Some of the projects are for minor renovations, some for equipment only, but some are for much bigger projects. The new Ministry of Education and Child Care prefers to have projects that are funded for $40,000 or less per space, but this restriction can be waived. Since, construction costs have been rising rapidly, $40,000 per space is now below full cost for many projects. And applicants are expected to come up with 10% of the entire project cost from other sources.
It’s also a one-time capital grant, so you have to know a lot of detailed cost and design elements up-front when you apply. At the time you apply, you are guessing at much of this. This is a disadvantage. A capital program, instead of a one-time capital grant, can be more flexible.
Eligible costs for the New Spaces program include project management, design/engineering costs and site evaluations, architect and accountant fees, and business planning development (business case model and analysis). Also eligible are infrastructure costs – water, sewer, roads, sidewalks. And equipment. And GST/PST and a 10% contingency.) Not included are costs of purchasing real estate, or buildings or commercial space (however, modular buildings to be erected on site are an eligible expenditure).
Many of the applicants for New Spaces funding are local governments, school boards, health district authorities, public post-secondary institutions, and First Nations. This is a great use of the program. Many of these bodies may have access to land for building, and many will have considerable experience in managing large development projects.
The New Spaces Fund is application-driven. In other words, organizations have to take the initiative and plan child care expansion and apply for capital funding. The New Spaces Fund is therefore a capital grants program, it is not part of a program of capital expansion. In many ways, this is a weakness and this feature has been criticized. Advocates say that B.C. needs planned child care expansion, focused first on areas of higher need, with support for many aspects of expansion – not just capital grants. Most child care centres do not have the resources to take on major capital development, raising millions of dollars of capital funding and managing multi-year expansion projects. Capital expansion requires more than just money. It needs organizations that will take responsibility for development; it needs architects with knowledge of child care, it needs design standards. It also needs a much longer guarantee that facilities will stay in place than the current 10-year requirement of the New Spaces Fund. Manitoba’s Ready-to-Move program is a model to look at for how resources of different actors can be mobilized for child care expansion.
While that’s true, let’s give B.C. some kudos for having a program of capital grants at all. Believe it or not, most provinces apparently believe that (capital) money grows on trees (for not-for-profit and public organizations). Alberta offers $5,000- $6,000 per space. Ontario offers about $7,000 per space. In the context where the cost of new-build construction is often more like $50,000-$60,000 per space, that’s not a serious amount of capital assistance.
B.C. has much to do. They are planning development of a wage grid to attract early childhood educators, but there is no deadline for when this will happen.
B.C. has not yet developed a funding formula for the provision of operational funding when parent fees are an average of $10 a day for everyone. This means that future revenue streams are uncertain, so the planning of child care expansion for not-for-profit and public services is more risky than it needs to be.
B.C. has not yet developed mechanisms for planning and guiding the child care expansion that will have to happen. Based on current use patterns in Quebec where parent fees are now $8.75 a day, we can expect that B.C. will need to have spaces for 174,180 children 0-5. That would mean a need for about 77,750 additional child care spaces compared to 2021. So, B.C. needs to get its game on. As many other provinces do.