In order to access the child care money announced in the 2021 Federal Budget, Ontario has to devise a credible, implementable 5-year plan to make licensed child care affordable, accessible and of high-quality. It’s a lot of money. I estimate that Ontario could receive about $1.16 Billion of new federal child care money in 2021-22. And more money on top for Indigenous child care. That would mean an increase of 50% in the amount of spending by the Ontario Government on early years and child care (which is now about $2.3 Billion).
The federal child care money for Ontario would rise to $1.74 Billion, $2.12 Billion and $2.51 Billion over the next three fiscal years. In 2025-26 and thereafter, Ontario should be receiving $2.97 Billion per year.
I believe the fundamental objective of the federal government is the creation in each province and territory of a system of community-based child care services that is affordable for parents, serves a wide range of child and parent needs, is accessible to families, inclusive of children with additional needs, and is of high-quality (i.e., with a high proportion of trained early childhood educators, with substantial continuing professional development). Community-based services are predominantly not-for-profit or public services such that the needs of communities, parents and children are the basis of all decisions rather than the commercial interests of the owners and shareholders of child care businesses. This is the direction mandated by the eight provincial and territorial agreements signed so far.
If Ontario comes up with a 5-year plan consistent with these objectives, the federal government will sign on the dotted line and we will get the child care funding. And this funding is permanent.
Good news? Yes. But Doug Ford is apparently unwilling to come up with an Ontario Action Plan that meets the federal requirements.
Of course, it won’t be easy. Ontario has the most expensive child care in the country. Real estate is more expensive here, labour is more expensive here, and child-staff ratios and regulations are better here than in some other provinces. Chrystia Freeland has called for a cut of 50% in parent fees by the end of 2022, but I don’t think the Ontario plan can be as simple as that. It would cost over $1 Billion just to reduce fees by 50% on existing Ontario spaces, without dealing with expansion or raising wages. We need a plan that simultaneously builds capacity, lowers fees, improves equity in access to services, increases compensation of ECEs and avoids long waiting lists for not-yet-existing services.
The trick is to design policies so that the transition towards affordable child care is equitable and well-managed. We need to work together on the five-year plan. The City of Toronto has already proposed that municipalities should be at the Ontario table because they will have major responsibility for delivering and managing the expansion of services. This is a good idea.
What principles and policies should be in Ontario’s 5-year child care plan?
- Low-, middle- and high-income families should all benefit from the reduction in child care fees. This may imply adoption of a sliding scale of parent fees along with gradual reduction of fixed maximum fees for child care.
- Rapid capacity expansion of not-for-profit and public services should be a top priority. Municipalities and school boards will be key to planning and implementation.
- There must be a 5-year and a 10-year plan for capital expansion and for the expansion of home child care. New capacity developments should be planned to produce an equitable geographic and income distribution of services. New capacity should take account of services for children needing additional supports, for families needing non-standard hours care, for special rural needs, and other needs for diverse services. There needs to be money for planning, development and capital.
- Fee reductions should be phased-in so that demand for services expands at about the same rate as capacity grows.
- All existing for-profit, not-for-profit and public services should be invited to provide lower-fee services for Ontario families. These fee reductions will be funded by substantially increased operating grants. In return for this substantial public funding, services will need to accept that they are providing what is essentially a public service with required financial transparency, controlled fees, increased compensation moving towards wage standards, enhanced reporting requirements, quality-improvement initiatives, increased professional development, and so on. Services that do not wish to accept these conditions can continue to operate with existing supports and regulations (e.g., current rather than increased levels of operating grants).
- Increased operating grants for these publicly-managed services should support increased compensation of ECEs as well as lower fees for parents.
- Research and widespread consultations should be conducted to lead towards agreement on the future structure and level of wages necessary to ensure continuing recruitment of adequate numbers of trained ECEs and to incentivize making early childhood education a viable career choice. A province-wide compensation grid with variations by region and by qualifications should be negotiated and operators should be expected to meet or exceed these levels.
- The Ontario government should sponsor collaborative research, in which municipalities will be involved, on the costs, quality, fees and demand for licensed child care. An important output of this research will be the identification of key factors affecting child care costs (and/or quality) that should be legitimately subsidized through operating funding.
These ideas are intended to begin an important conversation about the best growth strategy for licensed, community-based, publicly-managed child care services in Ontario. Federal initiatives have opened up immense possibilities; we need to determine the best path forward and pressure the provincial government to take it.