Kingston mom, Erika Smith, was excited to find out more about the federal government’s Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care system, which promises daycare at $10-a-day daycare for preschool-aged children across Canada. However, the promised rebates, which would see Ontarians saving an estimated average annual savings of $9,000 per child, compared to 2019 childcare fees, proved elusive to acquire.
“When I searched for information to try to see what’s going on in Kingston with the program at various daycares, and just in general, it was difficult to find information,” said Smith. “When the program was announced, you think, ‘okay, the government’s trying to figure it out, trying to make it work, and it’s going to come into effect at some point. And you know, parents will get a rebate.’”
However, she noted, after moving to Ontario from Alberta, she was a bit jealous to discover her friends in Alberta were already accessing the program back in January 2022 and enjoying the rebates. It wasn’t until March 2022 that Ontario became the last jurisdiction in Canada to sign on to the national Early Learning and Child Care Agreement with the federal government. Following that step, daycares were given the choice to opt-in or opt-out of the program, but with hesitancy and confusion amongst daycare providers, the deadline for that decision was delayed multiple times until the opt-in period finally ended on Nov. 1, 2022.
Smith’s daycare notified parents in the summer that the deadline had been extended, and that they would continue looking into whether they would be opting in or opting out. “And then finally, in October,” said Smith, “we got a note letting us know that they decided they’re not going to opt-in to the program because there’s just not enough information to guarantee that they will be able to continue to offer the level of care that they’ve been providing for many, many years.”
Why are daycares reluctant to get on board?
Dr. Kristy Timmons, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University, noted that the new program had different implications for different types of daycare providers. “We’re talking about two different things… for-profit private childcare centres versus not-for-profit… not-for-profits are a little bit more optimistic about it, and the private sector in the early years is quite hesitant,” she said.
Dr. Timmons explained that there can be fundamental differences in daycare business objectives. “I mean this in the nicest way possible, but if the underlying objective of the private childcare centre is to make a profit… it’s a business… Whereas not-for-profit organizations’ number one priority is to provide a high-quality environment… We know from research that non-profits provide higher-quality environments; they try to pay their educators more because the biggest predictor of quality is having quality educators. Registered Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) cost more than an assistant. Private childcare centres will have the minimum number of registered ECEs. and then they hire assistants to fill the other ratio spaces.”
“Obviously there are outliers, there are for-profit private centres that are fabulous,” she clarified. “That’s not to say that that’s not the case. But those are the ones that are really worried because some of the guidelines are focusing on having registered early childhood educators in this system, which would mean it [would] be more expensive for them.”
Dr. Timmons explained that the rollout in Ontario has been fraught with “a lack of clarity on planning,” and noted that daycares needed to opt in to the program in order to get information about how the program works.
“I think that there’s a lot of misconceptions with opting in. So, there’s this idea that you’re going to be stuck in this program where if you opt in, and if you don’t like the plan, you can’t opt out,” she said.
Dr. Timmons clarified that this is not the case; however, it does not seem to have been made clear to daycare providers that if they opted in, they could opt out later. “I don’t know why a childcare centre, especially a not-for-profit, wouldn’t opt in, knowing that they could opt out later.”
She added that some daycare providers were concerned about how they might be perceived if they made a decision about the program and then changed their mind: “Parents might be upset if [the daycares] are trialling the program and then decide to opt-out, but many [parents] will be happy that you’re at least trying to see how it works.”
Another point of concern is that of expansion, Dr. Timmons continued. “So, the government wants to expand [the daycare program]. We need to expand, but we won’t be able to do that unless we have a retention strategy.”
She pointed out that it is difficult for the daycare sector to retain staff, and that low rates of pay often make the positions unappealing as a long-term career. “[The government] did put in wage enhancements, which is great, but that is to a floor of $18/hour, where the recommendation was for it to be $30. There’s a big jump there. So, I think the concerns are how are we going to actually meet the goals of this plan without actually making sure that we’re supporting the educators that are working in the program.”
Trained ECEs can make better wages within the public elementary school system or simply get out of the daycare business entirely due to low pay, she explained, resulting in a severe lack of ECEs in the daycare sector.
All of the confusion hasn’t helped Erika Smith and parents like her who need reliable childcare.
“I am just so grateful for my daycare; honestly, I never worry about my son when he’s there,” said Smith. “It’s just something so important to be able to leave your child somewhere and not worry about what’s happening with them. It’s just such an important part of our infrastructure for people to be able to work [without worrying about childcare].”
Smith said that she’s been left feeling misled after expecting that the federal and provincial partnership in this program would result in more daycare spots, “or more affordable daycare for the people who actually really need it.”
Despite the fact that she won’t be getting a rebate any time soon, Smith would like to see ECEs being paid more for the work they do.
“They are saints,” she said.