Ontario’s 2024 Funding Formula

Ontario’s new funding formula should be providing clarity about guaranteed operating funding going forward.  It should provide for significantly increased staff compensation to deal with the obvious crisis in retention and recruitment.  It should give guarantees of sufficient future funding to make possible the rapid growth in not-for-profit and public facilities.  It should provide spending discretion to operators to spend funds in ways that are most appropriate to their program and community.  It should make clear that there will be ongoing and detailed financial accountability at the end of the funding year. 

Further, the funding formula should be designed to give a key role to CMSMs and DSSABs to adjust annual funding of services to meet local priorities.  And, the funding formula should ensure that child care services serving low-income, prioritized and underserved communities have the extra resources needed to serve them equitably.  Otherwise, access to child care services may be monopolized by more affluent families.

However, it is not clear that any of these objectives will actually be met.  Comments on the proposed funding formula can be made here until May 5th 2023.

What’s Wrong or Unclear About the Proposed Formula

  • It would be preferable to base the funding formula on its outputs rather than on its inputs.  In other words, the funding should be based on a target per diem for projected annual enrollment of infants, toddlers, preschoolers, kindergarten children etc., with funding adjustments for facilities with extra costs and unusual situations.  The proposed funding formula, which is based on inputs, is excessively bureaucratic and does not give much discretion to operators about how best to spend money to achieve desired goals in their circumstances.  Hopefully, this current proposed funding formula is a step along the road towards a better design.  However, a better funding formula based on a target per diem requires that wage rates and other compensation are reasonably uniform across all operators – that means that operators are paying staff according to a wage grid.  This is where the future of the funding formula should lie.
  • It is unclear what the meaning of “average base wage rate” is for RECEs and non-RECEs.  Is this some kind of average across the CMSM/DSSAB?  That would not make any sense; for many operators, it would not even cover current costs.  Instead, it seems to be the facility-specific current average wage before any wage supplements as reported on the most recent child care operator survey. 
  • The first problem is that these average wages have not generally been reported on the child care operator survey.  Instead numbers of staff in different wage ranges are reported. The new operator survey with responses due in early May has narrower wage ranges for reporting.  Is this going to be used to calculate average wages?  In any case the average wage should be taken only across staff providing care for children 0-5, and this is probably not the case on the most recent operator survey.  And the average wage should be calculated as a weighted average wage for RECE staff with the weights being the different number of hours worked by different staff.  That would be more appropriate than a simple average, but the proposed funding formula ignores this.
  •  The second problem is that there are clearly very significant retention and recruitment issues at prevailing wage and benefit rates.  Average wage rates for ECEs in Newfoundland and Labrador will be considerably higher than in Ontario for the foreseeable future!  This is ridiculous and unsustainable, as the cost of living is much higher in Ontario.  The funding formula should be based on a target wage grid at considerably higher wages than currently and operators should be invited to calculate compensation costs based on this wage grid.
  •  The program staffing grant funding formula is based on 260 days rather than 261. In fact, 2024 will have 262 days of operation.
  •  The staffing grant is not based on the expected number of hours worked but on the expected number of hours and days that the centre will be open.  This is an issue for kindergarten children where the formula seems to assume full-year attendance though many children of this age do not actually attend during summer hours and days.  In general, the government’s proposed formula will advantage centres where children attend less than full-time hours because the formula will pay for the number of staff required as if the child was present for all hours the centre is open.   
  •  The annual wage cost increase is part of the formula but has not been specified.  This should be inflation plus some percentage. Of course, some collective agreements and other commitments made by School Boards will already specify an annual increase that needs to be respected.
  •  The program staffing grant formula is based on the percentage of program staff who are RECEs and the percent that are not RECEs.  Instead, it should be based on the percent of the projected number of hours worked by RECEs and by non-RECEs, not the simple numbers of staff of each kind.  Variations in staffing costs are based on hours worked, not just the numbers of staff hired.
  • Are director’s approvals staff working in RECE positions considered to be RECEs for wage calculation purposes?  Is this an incentive for operators to seek director’s approvals in future hiring?
  • The program staffing grant does not include any allowance for training and professional development, or covering absences for professional development.  It is important to provide strong incentives in the funding formula towards increased and regular professional development.
  • The program staffing grant does not make any explicit allowance for planning time for RECEs and staff meeting time.
  • Only one FTE supervisor is allowed (e.g., for 7.5 hours per day) and no assistant supervisor.  This does not account for all the hours a centre is open in a day, let alone the need for more supervisory staff in larger centres.
  • There is no allocation for pedagogues that are above required ratios.
  • The supervisor’s wage appears to be based on some kind of average across centres in a previous survey, rather than the past wage or necessary future wage received by the supervisor in this centre.  In the future, there will need to be a salary scale for supervisory staff.
  • The accommodation grant formula is based on gross floor area.  Does this include playground space?   
  • How will this accommodation formula take into account capital renewal and capital maintenance?  Will the typical rental rate be based on new facilities, old facilities or what?
  • The accommodation (i.e., occupancy cost) formula should distinguish between for-profit and not-for-profit auspices.  For-profits may own their own building or may have an non-arms-length interest in the value of the property.  Accommodation funding may increase the value of their real estate in private hands.  Not-for-profits do not accrue these increases In value because their assets stay in public hands.  This suggests there should be very tight rules on accommodation grants for for-profits that have any financial interest in their premises, and looser rules on accommodation grants for not-for-profits.
  • There does not appear to be any recognition of the considerably larger costs going forward that are due to administration and reporting requirements.  This should be an explicit part of the operating grant.
  • The funding formula is silent on what will happen to future funding for children whose families receive child care subsidy.  This is a big problem.  There is no explicit commitment in the funding formula about the amount and distribution of money or number of families who will benefit from child care subsidies directed at low-income families and families otherwise in need.  We know that as the parent fee for licensed services is lowered, a larger and larger percentage of available spaces will be taken by families whose incomes are above subsidy-eligible levels. We also know that providing high quality care for subsidized children may take extra staff time and result in higher costs.  If the funding formula does not reward centres who take subsidized children with extra funding, subsidized children will tend to get squeezed out.  It may also be necessary to take other measures, such as reserving spaces for subsidized children, to ensure that children receiving child care subsidies and other prioritized children are at the front of the line for available spaces.
  • The proposed funding formula makes CMSMs and DSSABs into flow-through agencies for the distribution of funds, rather than service system managers.  Previously, CMSMs and DSSABs have played a key role in defining and funding local child care priorities.  The new funding formula should restore some of this local funding discretion, allowing municipalities with long subsidy waiting lists to direct more funding to these families, allowing other municipalities to direct more funding to children with special needs, to centres serving Indigenous children, to centres increasing accessibility for rural families, etc.

Principles Upon Which the Funding Formula Should Be Based

The funding formula should:

  • cover all the legitimate operating costs of a centre providing quality licensed child care services at or above regulatory minimums for children 0-5 across Ontario;
  • cover compensation costs for Registered Early Childhood Educators and assistants at wage and benefit rates that are competitive with other occupations requiring similar education, training and practicum requirements such that early learning and child care in Ontario is not characterized by staff shortages and widespread director’s approvals;
  • reward and encourage ongoing professional development and increased educational qualifications of both early childhood educators and assistants;
  • provide for extra compensation for early childhood educators with special qualifications such as special needs qualifications and pedagogue qualifications;
  • give operators discretion in decisions about the expenditure of allocated funds (ability to transfer funds across grant categories), but also require operators to report in detail at year-end about how funding has been spent, and adjust funding amounts as necessary;
  • adopt a desired wage grid and, perhaps, a timeline over which to achieve it.  The funding formula should reward operators who pay wages and benefits according to the timeline of recommended wage and benefit rates;
  • recognize sources of additional legitimate costs, such as providing care to a large number of children with special needs, even if not diagnosed, or caring for a large number of subsidized children living in disadvantaged circumstances or providing extended hours of care;
  • recognize higher costs per child that come from operating a small centre in a rural or remote area;
  • distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate reasons for having higher than normal occupancy costs;
  • encourage expansion, especially within existing facilities.  So, for instance, the formula should be based on either licensed capacity or the expected number of enrolled spaces over the next year as opposed to past enrollment (i.e., past operating capacity).

General Comments on the Funding Formula

The agreement signed between Ontario and Canada sets Ontario on the path to charging approximately $10 a day for licensed child care by 2025-26.  For those operators who have chosen to become part of the CWELCC system, fees charged to parents are already more than 50% lower than the fees charged on March 28th, 2022 when Ontario signed the agreement.  It is likely that all providers will charge a regular parent fee of $12 per day in 2025-26.  Because the fees for children in low-income subsidized families will be at or close to zero, the average parent fee across the province will average $10 per day.

The agreement moves licensed child care in Ontario towards a public service largely funded by government, so that it is affordable to families.  Over time, the amount of licensed child care for children 0-5 in Ontario will expand, so that the service is essentially universal.  However, right now, there are supply shortages of all types of care in all parts of the province.

The purpose of a funding formula is to determine the amount of funding needed by each participating operator in each facility to cover the reasonable costs of providing child care services to children 0-5.  These services will include full-day and part-day care for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and children of kindergarten age.  There will be some services that are open for non-standard hours or perhaps even overnight.  There will be special support for children with special needs.  There will be some centres that offer a forest school experience or services that are enriched in other ways. 

There are two components of the cost of providing child care that are highly variable across operators – costs of compensating staff and accommodation costs.

In other jurisdictions that have wage grids, either bargained by unions or through an awards system or by government fiat, compensation levels are more similar across different providers.  This makes it easier to, for instance, work out the approximate variation in costs of providing care for infants, toddlers, preschoolers etc.  If there is a wage grid, as in Quebec, a funding formula will be based on the services delivered, with a standard amount of funding for each unit of service.  In Quebec, the largest component of the funding formula is based on projected enrollment in spaces for each age category.   There are adjustments to these gross amounts to take account of higher costs in centres with higher wage and benefit levels, differences in enrollment and attendance, etc.

Ontario does not have a wage grid that defines expected wage and benefit levels and it has not historically collected information about legitimate variations in costs across providers.  As a result, Ontario has chosen to design a funding formula based on expected or current staffing costs, rather than on the amount and detail of services provided. The 2024 Funding Formula Discussion Paper indicates that there will be four separate grants relevant to the costs of child care centres:

  • The program staffing grant
  • The program leadership grant
  • The operations grant
  • The accommodations grant

In addition there will be a home child care grant and a grant to cover the administration costs of service system managers.

All of these grants refer only to CWELCC services for children 0-5 in facilities that have become part of CWELCC.  They will not fund services to children 6-12 or the staff that care for them.  They do not explicitly cover the financing of child care subsidies and there is no commitment in the funding formula to maintain and expand the number of children who receive additional subsidized assistance with child care costs. They do not cover funding of facilities that have not joined CWELCC.  All of the existing grants including wage enhancement and other grants for services covering children 0-5 are rolled into the new funding formula and disappear as separate grants.

The new funding formula will have to cover staffing costs, operating costs and occupancy costs for child care facilities across the province in very different situations.  The funding formula is not intended to cover capital costs of expansion or start-up costs.  However, the funding formula is intended to provide a guarantee of future funding amounts upon which a child care facility’s decisions about expansion will depend.

The funding formula paper is supposedly a formula for determining the amount of funding that will be allocated to each CMSM/DSSAB.  However, the funding directed to CMSMs and DSSABs is based on the aggregation of the amounts of funding that facilities in the CMSM or DSSAB will get.  So the funding formula apparently determines funding both at the level of the individual facility and of the CMSM/DSSAB.

The Ministry sponsored a mini-survey of child care costs designed to help calculate amounts needed to cover the costs of each facility.  The degree of detail on costs collected is insufficient to fill holes in the funding formula.  However, the funding formula paper says that this mini-survey is “foundational to building this cost-based model” and that “Those cost structures, including their variability, are captured through weighted averages and benchmarks at the CMSM and DSSAB level in the funding formula.”   In apparent contradiction to this talk about data at the CMSM and DSSAB level, the document also says that “Funding from CMSMs and DSSABs to licensees would consider the cost structure of each individual licensee and, since the formula captures high and low cost structures, the funding allocations would support the financial viability of licensees.”  Greater clarity is needed about these apparent conflicts in description.

The formula for the Program Staffing Grant is described in simple terms as “multiplying the number of program staff working hours by the compensation cost per hour, and adding a supply staffing allocation (for coverage during absences).  This calculation would be done at the child care centre level and then aggregated to derive the program staffing grant amount for each CMSM/DSSAB….”

The actual formula looks somewhat different to this simple description, however.

Instead of actual hours worked by staff, the formula calculates the number of staff that should be required (according to legislated child-staff ratios) times the number of hours the centre would be open if it were open every day of a 260 day year.   That means if a centre is “over-staffed”, the extra staff is not included in the funding formula.  If the centre is located in a particularly disadvantaged area or has children with substantial extra needs, you can easily imagine a centre being staffed above the ratios.  This might be an issue in rural areas with small centres where the required number of staff is fractional.  The formula does not account for this.

The formula presumes that all children attend the centre for the full number of hours it is open each day (e.g., 11 hours per day), rather than some arriving after opening and some leaving before closing.  It is presumed that the total number of operating days per year is 260 (rather than 261 or 262).  And it assumes that the daily staffing costs do not vary on statutory holidays, when the centre may be closed, which could be an issue especially for workplace-based extended-hours care.  Further, the formula is based on “operating capacity”.  The glossary defines operating capacity as “the number of children the centre/home child care is planning to serve as per the licensee’s staffing complement and budget, to a maximum ceiling of the licensed capacity.”  In other words, it is the capacity that the centre is staffed for.  Operating capacity is an intention or plan.   It is not clear how operating capacity is related to enrolment.  The actual costs of staffing are likely to be closely related to enrolment.

This calculation of the number of hours of staffing required (which is calculated separately for different age categories with special complications for children of kindergarten age), is then multiplied by a composite average compensation amount per hour.  This average compensation amount per hour is calculated as the sum of (a) average wage plus benefits of RECE program staff in the centre times the percent of staff that are RECE and (b) the average wage plus benefits of non-RECE program staff in the centre times the percent of staff that are non-RECE. 

This calculation of the average program staff compensation per hour has many problems.  First, it is said to be based on average wage information from the most recent child care operator survey.  However, the annual operator survey in Ontario does not collect information about average wages; instead it collects information about the numbers of staff whose hourly wage is in different ranges (e.g., $17.50 to $20.00 per hour).  The mini-survey did not collect this information either.  So, there is apparently no accurate basis for calculating the average wage or average compensation in a centre from existing provincial data.

Second, it is based on the percent of RECEs and non-RECEs in the centre.  It should be based on the number of hours worked by RECEs and hours worked by non-RECEs.  And, as long as there are going to be presumed RECEs based on Director’s Approvals that generally earn less per hour than RECE’s, there probably should be three categories of average compensation levels.  And, there does not appear to be any recognition of the need for specialized staff, whether they be related to children with special needs or whether they be pedagogues supporting other staff.  Where does the compensation of these staff fit in?  And where does planning time fit in?

Calculating the average compensation per hour for different groups will not be trivial.  The hourly base wage for each staff member (presumably this means the actual wage directly paid by the operator to each staff member) may be reasonably straightforward if staff are hourly paid, but a little less straightforward for staff earning a salary.  On top of this needs to be layered the various wage enhancement grant amounts whether part of CWELCC or from before.  Then there will be an annual wage cost increase allowed.  Plus the cost of benefits.  And all of this has to be stated as an average per hour compensation amount for each program staff and then this hourly amount will be averaged over all the RECE staff and the non-RECE staff separately.  The cost of many benefits does not necessarily vary directly with hours worked, so that can be a problem.  

And then there is an allocation for supply staff, based on a benchmark somehow calculated.  What about coverage for staff who go on maternity/parental leave, or disability leave, and top-ups paid for these leaves in some centres?  How does a general benchmark cover this?

There is no discussion in the formula about how to handle rising wage costs over the course of the year, presumably related to the rising wages that need to be paid to recruit new staff.  This will be a real problem if expansion is to occur. 

In general, it is unclear how new centres will be funded.  There is no existing base of wage information for these centres on which to base staffing grants.  Their wages and costs are likely to be higher than other centres because (a) they have to recruit staff in a situation of labour shortage and (b) many new centres are located in underserved communities where per-child costs may be high.  How can expansion happen if there is no clarity about future funding guarantees?

Amongst other things, It is obvious that the province should have been collecting much more detailed financial data from operators before trying to design a funding formula.  It will need to ensure the collection of detailed financial data going forward in order to make changes to the funding formula over time.

Gordon Cleveland

April 21st, 2023

An Open Letter to Kevin Rudd…from a Canadian economist who cares about Australian child care

This is a letter I wrote in 2008 (yes, 15 years ago) to the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd. He had recently promised to expand demand-side funding in Australia by extending the Child Care Tax Rebate to cover 50% of parents’ child care spending, up from 30%. I argue in this letter that this will do little in the long run to improve child care affordability, but that it will put a lot of money into the pockets of for-profit child care operators. Unfortunately, I think I have been proven right. I propose that Australia should treat child care as a public service funded with operational funding with strong measures of financial accountability for public dollars. I would make the same proposals today as Australia’s Productivity Commission studies how to make child care provision universal.

Dear Prime Minister Rudd,

The spectacular “collapse” of Eddy Groves’ debt-fuelled ABC Learning empire in the last week leads me to offer you some thoughts on future child care policy in Australia, which has become my second home in increasingly lengthy visits over the last few years.  Under the Howard government, Australia has become the leading example of a country that delivers child care services according to the late Milton Friedman’s dictum on public services: deliver them through private providers funded by vouchers that maximize consumer choice. 

The theory is that private providers would compete against each other for consumers, ensuring low costs and high quality that parents would purchase with their vouchers plus a parent contribution.  The private market would deliver public services much more efficiently than a bloated, inefficient, public sector could. In theory, the Child Care Benefit (geared to parents’ incomes) combined with the Child Care Tax Rebate provide the “voucher” for parents to be spent on approved child care services.  In theory, competition between providers, along with a nudge from the National Childcare Accreditation Council, ensures good quality child care services at affordable prices.  However, as the great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra once famously observed “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice.  In practice, there is.”

Competition is not a good mechanism for developing quality in child care.  The kind of quality that optimally promotes child development is very difficult for parents to observe.  It’s based on the nature of the interactions, over time, between teachers/caregivers and children.  Most parents don’t have hours and days to sit in their child’s child care centre and judge the nature and quality of interactions.  And, in any case, the interactions would change because the parent was there.  So parents can’t play their gatekeeper role in the child care market of punishing low quality producers and rewarding high quality ones.

In this case, the profit motive, normally loved by economists, becomes pernicious.  Corporate child care providers, anxious to serve their shareholders’ interests, do best by claiming to produce high quality services, but failing to hire the expensive trained staff necessary to actually provide them.

I do love Australia, but I believe that the Australian model of child care funding and regulation needs rethinking.  Although Milton Friedman’s model of private delivery of public services works not too badly for some public services, it doesn’t work well for child care.  The evidence lies in front of you.  Instead of competitive private provision, you have a single corporation completely dominating the market.  Instead of competitive pressures to keep prices low, you have prices leaping up each time the government tries to increase funding to make services more affordable.  Instead of high quality child care services, you have the Australian Council of Social Services identifying the “variable quality of early childhood care and education” as a major concern. Instead of good quality child care services delivered by knowledgeable staff trained in early childhood education, you have an expensive child care system in which, nonetheless, about 40% of staff are “unqualified” – have no early childhood education diploma or equivalent (National Children’s Services Workforce Study, 2006) and your legislated standards for staff:child ratios are low by international standards.

Instead of a free flow of public information about the quality of services, helping parents to make choices and forcing providers to compete to raise quality, you have the Accreditation Council guarding quality information to protect commercial confidentiality, you have an accreditation process that pretends to guarantee high quality but only actually slaps the hands of the worst offenders.  In fact, instead of inviting the cleansing winds of free competition into the production of a high quality public service, the Friedman model of funding has produced the inefficiency and greed of managed and protected private monopoly.

I realize that you have promised to expand the Child Care Tax Rebate from 30% to 50% in order to improve affordability for parents.  I think you should delay and rethink this change (while putting priority on the companion promise of 15 hours of free preschool).  You know full well what an expanded CCTR will do. Immediately, it will increase the value of Eddy Groves’ assets and that of other private producers.  Next, it will lead to an increase in the price of child care.  Several years down the road, child care will be no more affordable than it is today.

Good quality early learning and child care services have important public benefits, both by reducing the barriers to employment for those mothers that are anxious to enter the labour force, and by stimulating the play-based development of children while their parents are working or studying.  Government can contribute to the achievement of these twin public objectives only if it can find a way of facilitating the provision of high quality care at affordable prices for parents, with special attention to affordability for low-income families.  I would argue that Australia is not scoring particularly well on any of these objectives: not on quality, not on affordability, and not on affordability for low-income parents.  You do have some fine examples of good programs scattered around Australia, and many good individuals working hard to provide better services, but these are only at the margins of the system, rather than at its centre.   It appears that the system of delivery of this important public service is broken, and needs more than a quick-fix solution.

In what direction do solutions lie?  I think you should acknowledge that early learning and child care is, fundamentally, a public service rather than a private market commodity.  Public and community-based not-for-profit providers will have fewer incentive-conflicts in pursuing the public objectives of good quality, and the integrated delivery of care and education.  Many parents recognize this, as the ballooning waiting lists of many community-based centres attest. Governments should find ways of strengthening this sector’s ability to act as a leader and a standard in the provision of community-oriented high-quality integrated child care and family services. 

If the private for-profit sector is going to continue to be an important part of the Australian delivery system, it will need to have strong incentives to serve public interests better.  This means using the money promised for expansion of the Child Care Tax Rebate to, instead, develop effective, conditional, supply-side funding for long day care facilities.  The OECD’s 2006 report on child care policy in member countries (with a prominent Australian co-author) advised that “direct public funding of services brings…more effective control, advantages of scale, better national quality, more effective training for educators and a higher degree of equity in access and participation than consumer subsidy models.”  This subsidy money would be provided to services conditional on their openness and transparency, and on observed meeting of quality standards and measures.

Finally, and importantly, based on my Canadian experience, I would advise serious consideration (in the 2020 review and elsewhere) of publicly-provided maternity and parental leave and benefits.  In Canada, nearly every currently-employed new mother is eligible for 15 weeks paid leave, and, on top of this, employed mothers and fathers can share another 35 weeks of paid leave in the year after the child’s birth.  The leave and benefits are enormously popular, and provide a superb opportunity for (both) working parents to bond with their new-born children.  The benefits are financed by employer-employee contributions; because only a small fraction of the employed population is on leave at any time, the necessary contributions are small.  For many families, maternity and parental leaves make it possible to reduce the conflict between employment and raising a family, making continuous labour force attachment possible.  Maternity and parental leave also make the use of child care before the age of one unnecessary for most families.  This is the age at which child care, when it is done well, is startlingly expensive; when it is not done well, this is when child care can have important negative effects on children.

I urge you to take the opportunities you have created in your new government to redirect early learning and child care policy in new directions.

A shortened version of this letter will be sent for possible publication in an Australian newspaper. 

I would be happy to clarify, or defend, any of the propositions I have advanced here, in further correspondence. 

Yours very truly,

Dr. Gordon Cleveland,
Economist and Associate Chair,
Department of Management,
University of Toronto Scarborough

 Why the Preference for Not-for-Profit and Public Child Care Services? 

This is my submission to the Parliamentary Committee studying Bill C-35 in Canada.

I am an economist who specializes in the analysis of child care systems and in the design of child care policies and their effects. I have taught economics at the University of Toronto for 24 years.  I have published numerous articles analyzing issues related to child care in academic and policy journals.  I was the economist for the Special Parliamentary Committee on Child Care established by the Mulroney government in 1986-87.  I was the main author of a major report on child care reform in Ontario for the Ministry of Education in 2018.  I am currently a member of the National Advisory Council on Early Learning and Child Care but this brief reflects my own opinions, and not those of the Council.

I wish to address the issue of for-profit, not-for-profit and public child care services, a topic which has generated some controversy.

The Legislation
Bill C-35 expresses a clear intent that expansion of early learning and child care services should be predominantly in not-for-profit and public auspices but also that all existing services of whatever auspice should be supported to provide affordable child care services.  

Bill C-35 says that the aim of federal investments is to facilitate access to early learning and child care programs and services “in particular those that are provided by public and not for profit child care providers”.  The legislation describes this as a “guiding principle” for federal investments in early learning and child care.

This is in accord with the principles articulated in the 2021 federal budget, which said that child care is essential social infrastructure, like the health and education systems.  According to that document, the immediate priority is “building the right foundations for a community-based and truly Canada-wide system of child care. This includes working with provinces and territories to support primarily not-for-profit sector child care providers to grow quality spaces across the country while ensuring that families in all licensed spaces benefit from more affordable child care.” (p. 103). All of the thirteen agreements signed by provinces and territories indicate the consent of these jurisdictions to these purposes in the expenditure of federal money – about $30 billion over 5 years.

What is not-for-profit child care?  Not-for-profit child care is defined by its essential purposes.  Not-for-profit child care services are those services that spend revenues to enhance the well-being of families and children rather than to enrich the owners of the service.  As the Canada-Wide child care agreements say they are “services to a community for a purpose other than generating a profit, including publicly-delivered child care operations. Providers/operations may generate a profit, but the surplus earnings, or other resources, are directed towards improving child care services (for example, improving family or child well-being or development) rather than distributed for the personal benefit of owners, members, investors or to enhance asset growth.”

Why does the federal government favour not-for-profit and public child care?  The federal preference for not-for-profit child care derives directly from its desire to follow the example of Quebec in building a publicly-managed child care service for families.  This fixed-fee child care system has been effective and popular in Quebec since the late 1990s.  Following this model, by 2026, early learning and child care in Canada will be a publicly-managed service available for $10 a day to families. 

Centres de la Petite Enfance (CPEs) are the not-for-profit child care centres that are at the heart of Quebec’s system.  These services had a fixed fee, originally of $5 a day (now $8.85 per day).  Child care services are funded according to the services they provide rather than being funded through money or vouchers given to parents.  Because the majority of funds come from government, these services are financially accountable for how they spend public dollars, and must provide detailed annual reports.  There is monitoring and assessment of quality.  These fixed-fee services are incredibly popular with parents, in much the same way that kindergarten as a guaranteed affordable and accessible service is very popular with parents in the rest of Canada. 

Unfortunately, the organizations that claim to represent for-profit operators have made clear their rejection of this approach to funding and managing Canada’s child care services.  They are apparently unwilling to accept the fundamental elements that are necessary components of a $10 a day system:  fixed-fees, direct operational funding of services, financial accountability for government funding of nearly 90% of their ongoing costs, government monitoring of service quality, public planning mechanisms to determine direct expansion of services to underserved communities, together with parental choice amongst a variety of different child care service options for their child (e.g., full-time, part-time, forest schools, evening and weekend services, special supports for children with disabilities, etc.)

What’s wrong with for-profit child care?   In some other industries, the profit motive is a beautiful thing.  Most of the goods and services we consume day-to-day are sold to us by private businesses, competing with each other to attract consumer dollars, each business striving to succeed in producing the most attractive and useful product at the best price.  Some of these businesses may get out of hand with false advertising or delivery of shoddy goods, but government regulation may be able to control these negative behaviours and leave us with mostly positive results.

Competition is the force in markets that tends to make the self-interest of entrepreneurs broadly consistent with the public interest of consumers.  In many markets, it is competition that keeps prices lower, encourages quality improvements and stimulates innovation.  For a series of reasons, competition does not play this same role in child care markets – the fact that effective markets for any family are geographically very small, the importance of external benefits and the difficulties of accurately assessing quality.  And so, typically, in the child care sector, for-profit providers have charged higher fees and provided lower quality services.  In child care markets, self-interest is not curbed by competition; left unchecked, the desire to maximize profit can be directly opposed to the best interests of children and families.

Early learning and child care is a service where minor regulation of private profit-seeking businesses is not enough to deliver good results.   Early learning and child care is a sector that has much in common with education.  In general, education is much better when providers are public or not-for-profit.  Primary and secondary education are delivered in public schools for free.  Tertiary education is delivered by not-for-profit community colleges and universities for fees that are subsidized with public dollars.  

As a society, we think that a primary and secondary education system that is delivered by public institutions (schools) behaves differently than it would if it were dominated by private profit-seeking businesses competing for the consumer dollar.  We think that tertiary education delivered by profit-seeking businesses would be different and worse than when delivered by not-for-profit community colleges and universities.  We think that kindergarten would be different and worse than when delivered by public institutions. There are issues of quality, there are issues of trust in the behaviour of the provider, there are issues of equity of delivery and guarantees of access.  All of these make us prefer not-for-profit and public delivery of educational services and not-for-profit and public delivery of early learning and child care.

As Margaret Norrie McCain and Roy Romanow wrote back in 2005: : We have nothing against profit making except when it comes to profiting off publicly subsidized children’s services. Child care like schools, libraries or hospitals is a community-based service, not a commodity.  Whether a centre opens or closes, where it its located or who it serves are not merely business decisions. They require democratic input.  While child care centres should be business-like in their efficiencies; it must be recognized that the business of these organizations should be total fixation on the well-being of children…. The ministers should grandfather those now operating, but restrict expansion dollars to public and non-profit child care providers. (“Stand on guard for child care”, Globe & Mail, 4 Feb 2005).

Is this position just ideological? The position is not ideological; it is practical.  Not-for-profit and public child care services have a better track record in providing the levels of quality that will best support children’s development. The consensus on this is sufficient that the Globe and Mail editorial board recently wrote that “Research here and in other countries has consistently shown that, on average, non-profit child-care centres deliver better care than for-profit ones.” (Feb 13, 2023). 

Child care systems dominated by not-for-profit and public providers operate differently than those dominated by commercial providers.  Just compare co-ordinated child care systems in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark to wild-west markets for child care in England, Australia and the United States.   In child care systems dominated by not-for-profit and public provision, low-income families are better served, the quality of services is higher and more reliable and the costs are lower.

When parent fees drop to an average of $10 a day by 2025-26, the effective role of competition will be even weaker than it is now.  Over 80% of the funds for children 0-5 years will come from government.  Parents will be paying less than 10-15% of the full costs of providing care. No matter how you deliver the government assistance, that means that the parent is no longer the main consumer who controls child care providers by voting with their dollars for better quality, more services or lower fees.  The main consumer, the main driver of what happens in the child care “market” will be the government, as it is in all levels of education.  So, it is, more or less, a purely ideological statement to say that competitive child care markets will make for-profit providers be more efficient, that they will serve parent needs better, that they will provide better quality care, that they will be more responsive to what parents and children need and want.

Notice that the federal legislation and provincial/territorial agreements do not seek to abolish or eliminate for-profit child care.  The intention is only to have limitations on the amount of its growth and to regulate its quality and accountability for funds received.  Under this legislation, growth will be predominantly in not-for-profit and public services including home child care. Many families now have their children in for-profit services that will continue to get federal government funding and will thrive.  So far as I know, there is not a single for-profit service that existed before the rollout of the $10 a day program that has been refused entry to the program and the funding that goes with it.

What we need are producers of child care whose primary objective is the provision of quality experiences for children, producers who are willing to make constant quality improvement their watchword. These producers need to be financially transparent and open (because government will need to monitor costs and account for expenditures). These producers need to pay staff well according to established salary grids to ensure stability and quality of services.   These producers need to have as a key objective making early learning and child care into a public service at good quality and affordable for all.

If existing for-profit providers are willing to accept these types of conditions on their operation, they are welcomed to continue operation in the $10 a day system, with operational funding. 

We should be aware that there will be substantial downward pressures on quality as the child care sector expands rapidly, even if it is dominated by not-for-profit and public providers. There will be many new staff with little experience, there will be shortages of trained staff, and there will be inadequate numbers of experienced educators to properly mentor new staff. In this circumstance, to rely on providers whose fundamental objectives do not align well with the promotion of quality would be a serious mistake.

Doesn’t for-profit child care provide more “choice” for parents? Not really.  The “choice” that parents want and need is choice of services that are more convenient for parents in terms of location and hours and better for children in terms of availability of special needs programming, variety in programming (such as outdoor-oriented programs), support for particular cultural and language learning etc.   Most of these programs are more expensive to offer than standard child care.  For-profit operators, seeking to maximize profit, are less likely to offer them when fees are controlled.  For-profit operators will only provide more “choice” in offering ancillary services for which they may be able to charge extra fees.

Is there any evidence that the quality of for-profit child care is worse than not-for-profit child care?  There is good academic evidence that for-profit provision tends to be of lower quality.  And noted Canadian economist Professor Pierre Fortin has summarized the quality results from two Quebec studies very nicely in this chart.

This evidence is based on lengthy and detailed on-site quality evaluations using accepted scales for the measurement of the factors important to children’s development.  As the chart shows us, children in not-for-profit CPEs in Quebec have been receiving good or excellent quality child care.  Many children in for-profit full-fee child care centres have been receiving child care of inadequate quality.  

An important part of the reason is that for-profit child care has historically paid much lower wages to staff than has the not-for-profit sector. 

But isn’t it true that public and not-for-profit enterprises are inefficient and for-profit providers can produce services at lower costs?
There is little evidence of this.   The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently made over 9,000 phone calls to child care facilities across Canada, inquiring about the fees they charge to parents (Macdonald and Friendly, In Progress: Child Care Fees in Canada 2019, 2020).  Their conclusion: “We found that for-profit centres generally charge more for preschool spaces than not-for-profit centres do. In 19 of the 25 cities for which we had data (76%) for-profit centres charged at least 10% more than not-for-profit centres. In the more extreme cases (Calgary, Richmond, Richmond Hill and Edmonton), for-profit centres’ preschool-age fees were 50% to 60% higher than their not-for-profit counterparts.” (pp. 20-21).  The chart below from that publication shows that, in 15 of the 25 cities, for-profits charge on average over 20% higher parent fees. 

It is worth noting that in Australia, with child care provision dominated by for-profit operators, the average cost of full-time care is over $27,000 a year for all ages of children and has risen by 41% over the last eight years, much more than inflation (Australian Government Productivity Commission Report on Government Services 2021).

But isn’t it true that for-profits can build spaces faster?  When it comes to growth, for-profit child care providers have structural advantages over not-for-profits.  Community-based not-for-profit child care centres have typically been unwilling to go into debt, so unless there is a program of capital grants, loan guarantees or social investment to pay for the costs of building new facilities or repurposing existing buildings, it will be hard for not-for-profits to expand.

The mission of for-profit businesses is to make a profit, so expansion is a natural fit, particularly when the government is paying over 80% of the operating costs and therefore guaranteeing a continuing demand for services.  Shareholders or banks are always willing to ante up when the government is willing to provide guaranteed funding for profit-making businesses.

But there are ways around these structural barriers faced by not-for-profits.  Not-for-profits need two main things if they are to build new capacity quickly.  First, is access to capital.  Some of this should come in the form of capital grants to not-for-profits or municipalities or school boards who are willing to move quickly.  Some of this can be in the form of low-interest loans.  Not-for-profits are allowed to borrow money, but most banks and other sources of funds are unwilling to lend because of perceived high risk of defaultrtt.  But governments can and should guarantee the loans, because, after all, there will be ample federally-provided operating funding for child care centres to pay back the loans over time.

The second thing that not-for-profits need is a development champion – a development agency that specializes in handling all the details involved in building new capacity or renovating existing capacity.  This is familiar territory for co-operative housing or not-for-profit housing developments.  There are specialized agencies that handle the housing development and then turn the housing over to co-ops or not-for-profit housing agencies to manage and operate.

Neither of these barriers is particularly insurmountable, but they do require governments to facilitate surmounting them.  In many cases, public agencies such as municipalities, school boards, and community colleges can help a great deal in supporting not-for-profit and public developments.  And the federal government should be open to expansions of kindergarten integrated with before-and-after school care.  This is particularly true in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta that currently have only half-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds.

Ontario shows that rapid expansion of not-for-profit child care services is very possible.  The information is available in the annual Ontario statistical report on early learning and child care (Ontario Early Years and Child Care Annual Report – various years).  Over the last 10 years to 2019-20, centre spaces increased in Ontario by 198,600.  Fully 85% of the increase (168,900 spaces) was in not-for-profit child care.  As of 2020, there were 462,800 centre spaces in Ontario.  Can not-for-profits expand rapidly?  Given the right supports, yes they can and they have.

What about the growth of big-box corporate for-profit child care? Some for-profit child care providers are good, some are bad.  This is not really a discussion about individual operators.  Particularly when small for-profit operations are run by persons knowledgeable about early childhood education, they can sometimes do quite a good job providing child care services. The legislation in front of the Standing Committee does not and most of the provincial/territorial agreements do not exclude some expansion of for-profit care.

The real issue is “Should the early learning and child care systems that we are building in Canada be dominated by for-profit corporate child care operators?”   We know that if government policy is agnostic between for-profit and not-for-profit, and generous operating funding for over 80% of costs is made available to both, we will quickly have for-profits dominate new provision of services. 

We can look to Australia for evidence.  In 2000, the Australian government introduced its Child Care Benefit, providing substantial child care funding for the first time.  In 2001, ABC Learning began its corporate life with 43 child care centres.  It quickly expanded, gobbling up existing centres and creating its own.  By the time it collapsed in financial scandal in 2007, it had grown to over 1,000 centres – 25% of the entire child care market.

Now that there are billions of federal dollars on the table, corporations who never had any interest in children’s or families’ welfare are, all of a sudden, very anxious to be able to enter this market and profit from the financial bonanza.  Now is the time to decide whether Canadian child care will be corporate or community-based.  This legislation declares the intent of the federal government that federal funds should be used to create a community-based early learning and child care system.

Are for-profit operators being excluded from the new Canada-Wide child care system? That, of course, depends on the details of the agreements signed in each province and territory.  However, in Alberta and Ontario where there has been the greatest clamour from the for-profit operators, it is clear that for-profit operators are not excluded.  In fact, in both provinces, all existing for-profit operators have been invited to join and benefit from the funding guarantees provided by federal dollars.

In Ontario, the provincial government agreed that there could be growth in the number of for-profit spaces, but that the proportion of for-profits could not be greater than they were when the agreement was signed.  Discrimination?  Hardly.  Instead, this is a policy preference of maintaining the existing predominantly not-for-profit and public balance of provision.

In Alberta, more than 60% of child care has been provided by for-profit operators.  Most of the growth since the Canada-Wide child care agreement was signed has been in the for-profit sector.  An opening for an additional 22,500 for-profit spaces has been recently announced.  Does this sound like an ideologically-biased extermination of the for-profit sector?  Hardly.  If anything, the stick is bent too far in favour of for-profit provision.  The federal legislation is a useful reminder that the intent is, over time, to create a child care system that provides a public service in which not-for-profit, public and home child care providers are the dominant group of providers dedicated to the public interest in child care.

Do for-profit child care operators in Canada support the $10 a day system?  For-profit child care operators and their lobbyists want full access to federal dollars, but they don’t agree with direct funding of child care services to provide $10 a day care.  They disagree with the fundamental design elements for the program that are laid out in the thirteen provincial and territorial agreements.  Instead of accepting direct funding of services, the newly-formed National Advisory Council on Private Child Care says “The Council will advocate for a new approach to childcare that provides funding directly to families.”   

That kind of tax-credit or voucher-type funding mechanism has been tried in Quebec and has been a failure.  As a result of these failures, the current Quebec government has decided to  convert up to 50,000 of the tax-credit-funded spaces (i.e., most of them) to fixed-fee spaces over the next five years. 

The voucher-type funding model is similar to the one currently used in Australia where fee rises have been much higher than inflation and where there are few measures of financial accountability of operators for the ways they use over $10 billion of government money.  Rising fees and few measures of financial accountability are very attractive to for-profit operators.  But they are not good for parents, children or governments.

For-Profit Operators Don’t Want Child Care to Be a Public Service for Families

There’s a new Canada-wide organization of for-profit child care operators that has just been formed in Calgary.  Appropriately enough, they were brought together by CIPR Communications, a PR and marketing company they have hired to state their case.  They don’t like the new Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care system that the federal government and all provincial and territorial governments have agreed to create (to complement Quebec’s system).  They don’t want you and other families to have $10 a day child care.

Instead, their new policy idea is the same as the much-tested and discredited old policy idea – fund the parents to buy child care at ever rising fees (if they can find it) instead of funding services to ensure that they are affordable and available for families.  See discussion of these ideas here, here and here.

They are aggrieved that federal, provincial and territorial governments across the country have agreed that the preference should be for the expansion of not-for-profit and public child care services.  These for-profit operators believe the preference for not-for-profit child care is ideologically driven.  However, the Globe and Mail editorial this week told us why not-for-profits are preferred: “Research here and in other countries has consistently shown that, on average, non-profit child-care centres deliver better care than for-profit ones.”  An important part of the reason is that for-profit child care has historically paid much lower wages to staff than has the not-for-profit sector. 

And the private operators don’t like financial accountability.  They are happy for the federal government to spend $10 billion a year on child care and for provinces and territories to pay a similar amount.  But they don’t want the financial accountability that goes along with the new child care agreements.  That’s why they prefer funding to go to parents – no need to report on or account for the 90% of your revenues that come from government.  No limitations on profit earned.  No limits on excessive spending.  No need to account for the government money that buys you assets that you can then sell to others.  Talk about pigs at the trough. 

I recently gave a webinar presentation on behalf of Building Blocks for Child Care.  Its focus was on expansion issues, but I talked quite a bit about the appropriate role of for-profit operators in building the new early learning and child care system.  Let me quote at length from that presentation:

“There can be a role for for-profit operators in a universal system. Having a certain percentage of for-profits is not NECESSARILY a deal-breaker.  … the key is that for-profits in our universal child care system must accept the rules of the game.  What do I mean by rules of the game? Early learning and child care is becoming a public service somewhat like health and education.  Child care will be largely publicly funded and must be accountable for the ways it spends public funds.  Value for money received. Early learning and child care will be affordable to parents, will be of high quality, will be universally available in a wide range of forms suited to children’s and parents’ needs and will be delivered mainly by not-for-profit and public licensees, with some delivery of services by private for-profit operators.

“Something like 80%-90% of an operator’s revenues will come from government. Operators will have to be financially accountable for these funds and transparent about how they spend them.  Some expenditures will not be legitimate and many will. There will be monitoring, quality evaluation, and extensive reporting requirements. That’s the way that a universal fixed-fee system has to work, but most for-profit operators seem not to accept these rules of the game.

“For-profit operators want very few controls on their spending and the costs that they can claim.  They lobbied the Ministry [i.e., the Ontario Ministry of Education] successfully to get rid of most measures of financial accountability for the 2022 and 2023 funding guidelines. Yet, without financial accountability, they expect governments to compensate them for all of their costs above $10 a day.  How can that work?  It doesn’t.  In fact, if you talk to for-profit operators for a little while, you find out that they don’t like a fixed-fee system at all.  They want a tax credit scheme [i.e., funding provided to parents], in which for-profit operators charge whatever the market will bear, and governments give increasing amounts of money to parents to chase after the rising fees and try to make child care affordable.  They don’t accept the rules of the game.  And as long as they don’t accept the rules of the game, for-profit operators play a decisively negative role in our attempts to build a universal system of good quality child care services. “

These for-profit operators meeting in Calgary have just made clear what many of us already knew – many for-profit operators are unwilling to be participants in building an accountable, affordable, accessible, high quality system of child care as a public service for Canada’s families.  They would prefer a child care funding system that enriches them without controls or accountability.  Let’s ignore them and their PR company, but be willing to work with those for-profit operators that ARE willing to be part of building early learning and child care as a public service.

The Twisted Logic of the Globe and Mail Editorial Board

Let me get this straight. 

  • On average, not-for-profit child care centres reliably deliver better care than for-profit ones.
  • In Canada, we need expansion of spaces as a high priority.
  • This expansion must be accompanied by financial accountability for public money, caps on fees, higher wages, and better quality for children.
  • Around the world, we have prominent experiences where for-profit child care corporations feast on public money without accountability, drive up fees much faster than inflation, and slash wages to enhance profit.
  • Therefore, in Canada, we must resist limitations on the growth of for-profit child care and allow more entrepreneurs to enter the market.

It’s nice when opinion columns are logical; many people think it’s a requirement of the genre.  But not so for the Globe and Mail.  Their most recent editorial about not-for-profit and for-profit child care is insightful, but completely illogical.