Not-for-profit and public services are at the heart of Ontario child care. Overall, they care for more than three-quarters of our children in licensed child care. For children 0-5 years of age, that number has been 70% of children compared to 30% in commercial child care arrangements.
I guess that’s why Ontario didn’t fuss too much about agreeing with the federal government that this percentage – at least 70% not-for-profit and public – would stay the same when licensed child care moves to $10 a day by 2026. In March 2022, Ontario signed an agreement with the federal government to get about $10 billion over 4 years in order to transform Ontario’s child care into an affordable, increasingly accessible service provided predominantly by not-for-profit and public providers.
That Agreement is admirably clear on the limits to for-profit expansion. In Section 2.1.1, Ontario commits that “at the end of this Agreement, the proportion of not-for-profit licensed child care spaces for children age 0 to 5 compared to the total number of licensed child care spaces for children age 0 to 5 will be 70% or higher.” (emphasis added)
This commitment is repeated in Ontario’s Action Plan in Section 4.4.
However, there is increasing evidence that Ontario regrets the terms they agreed to in March of 2022. I have now heard from the Ministry of Education that Ontario no longer plans to respect this part of the Agreement.
Of course, the Canada-Ontario Agreement is a contract and payment of federal money depends on following its terms. So, the Ministry of Education is twisting itself into a pretzel trying to justify its new intentions. The Ministry of Education has now decided that the insistence upon a minimum of 70% not-for-profit services, despite the clear wording above, refers only to services that are in receipt of federally-provided operating funding and does not apply to all licensed child care. But – read the underlined section again – they are obviously wrong.
Why is this happening now? For-profit expansion was front-end-loaded by the current government. Many for-profit operators applied for licences over the months that Ontario was dithering about whether to sign an agreement to take billions of dollars of federal child care money. As a result in order to stick to the original 70% rule, the province could only license about 2,300 more spaces between now and 2026, according to my calculations. All the rest of the expansion, tens of thousands of spaces, would have to come from either not-for-profit or public operators.
Apparently, the government of Ontario, and the for-profit lobbyists that appear to dictate its recent policy changes, did not like this logic. Ontario now wants to be allowed to license dozens or hundreds more of these for-profit operators whose fees will not be controlled.
The Ministry of Education’s reinterpretation of the Agreement would mean more for-profit expansion than the current limit of 2,300 within federally-funded services. Plus, it would allow for an infinite amount of for-profit expansion outside of the funding agreement. Presumably, once this agreement ends in 2026, all these new for-profits outside the agreement could be welcomed by Ontario into a new five-year funding arrangement with the federal government.
For-profit expansion outside of the funding agreement will not be planned or controlled in any way. It will, no doubt, happen in the big population centres where most services are already located, not in priority underserved neighbourhoods.
This latest travesty comes on top of other instances of Ministry of Education fealty to Ontario’s for-profit operators. We need to make it clear that this is unacceptable. Parents want and need good quality, affordable child care. They will get that in a system dominated by not-for-profit logic. But they will not get good quality affordable child care if commercial interests are allowed to take complete control of Ontario’s child care policies.