Montreal, November 25, 1998
On the morning of August 29, 1997, the cash-strapped parents of Quebec’s 4-year-olds woke up to a wonderful new world. Daycare in the province’s regulated child-care centres and family homes, which had set them back $400 to $600 a month the day before, now cost just $5 a day.
In Brendan and Lorrie Sawatsky’s semi-detached home in Pierrefonds, money had always been tight. Lorrie, 34, loved working in the office of an environmental hygiene firm, but her paycheque barely covered the fees at Les Bois Verts, a non-profit parent-incorporated daycare centre in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that her daughter Rhiana had attended since she was 18 months old. Lorrie worked more for her sanity and well being than for financial gain.
When 3-year-olds became eligible for the government’s $5 a day program this September, the family finally started to reap the benefit of two incomes. They managed to buy Rhiana a new bed and even put a little cash in the bank.
Taylor Underhill is 2, but her mother Tracey Walker, 27, who handles the family’s budget, is already thinking about how to spend the $300 more a month she’ll have when Taylor enters the $5 program at her non-profit workplace daycare in Place Ville Marie. Perhaps Tracey and partner Steve Underhill, together since they were 19, can now afford the big wedding Tracey has always wanted.
“Parents who have these places are much less stressed,” said Marie-France Lemieux, director of Garderie les Minis, a downtown non-profit centre. “They have money when they need to buy shoes and snowsuits.”
Exactly how much money $5 daycare is putting into parents’ pockets is not clear. As part of its new family policy, which emphasizes aid to underprivileged families, the Parti Quebecois government has revised or thrown out family allowances, baby bonuses, the young child allowance, child-care subsidies to parents, and the child-care tax deduction (for those on the $5 program). A 15-per-cent tax cut for families earning less than $50,000 a year and a one- per-cent rise in TVQ complicate the equation. What is clear is that this reform is costing a bundle—$553 million for daycare services in 1998-99 alone, now that 3-and 4-year-olds are eligible. All children will be covered by September 2000. And by 2006, when the government expects to have enough spaces for just about everyone who wants one, it may have set in motion an upheaval in Quebec society.
Its appeal for parents is irresistible. Cynics have suggested that the PQ designed the policy to woo young woman voters, many of whom rejected the sovereignty option in 1995. Liberal leader Jean Charest briefly waffled in his support of the policy, then quickly affirmed his commitment.
For Premier Lucien Bouchard the program’s success has been marred only by its popularity. Angry and frustrated parents who cannot find one of the 55,500 spaces are on long waiting lists at centres and regulated family daycare agencies.
The policy does not give priority to working or studying parents, and how many children actually need daycare remains an open question. A survey by the Ministry of the Family and Childhood on the subject is due out next month.
Child-care advocates in the rest of Canada have hailed the policy for its affordability and attention to the needs of both parents and children. Quebec is “light years ahead,” economist Judith Maxwell of the Canadian Policy Research Networks recently told CBC listeners.
But child-care workers in Quebec—the people who actually care for the children on $5 daycare—have quite a different view. “We’re not on the yellow brick road,” said Barbara Kaiser, director of the non-profit Garderie Narnia in Westmount. “We could be on the road to disaster.” The fear is that the government isn’t contributing enough money to maintain the high quality of child care that is essential to healthy child development. Said Kaiser, “Good child care is good for children, and bad child care is bad for them.”
Under the new funding system, where the government replaces the parents’ former contribution with money from its own coffers, revenue to non-profit centres—which research consistently shows provide better care—has actually fallen.
According to a study by the Quebec Association of Preschool Professional Development, by 2002 a 60-place daycare with a $525,000 budget will lose between $7,000 and $42,000 a year.
To meet payroll last summer, Garderie les Petites Cellules director Theresa Kozina had to take out a line of credit, and to break even she has upped the centre’s enrollment by 10, though it means crowding children into a space that she considers inadequate.
Because the ministry wants to keep all non-profit centres equally affordable, it has imposed strict rules limiting how they increase their revenues. It will deduct sums collected through donations, registration fees, and activity fees this year from next year’s grants.
The centres can bill more than $5 only for special optional activities like trips that fall outside of the normal educational programnot to put more teachers into classrooms or to keep groups small.
Fundraising is the only method a centre can use to swell its treasury. Les Bois Verts parents have sold cookies, mouse pads, entertainment books, t-shirts, hats, mugs, oranges and grapefruit. To balance their budgets, the non-profit centres might be forced to admit more children, operate fewer hours, or hire fewer and less qualified staff.
“The floor, the bare minimum, is becoming the ceiling,” said Larry DePoe, director of Les Bois Verts and president of the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Quebec.
Joy Fyckes, who tiled her own office floor to cut costs at Place Ville Marie, said, “The policy hasn’t hurt us to date, but it will certainly be detrimental once it starts to hit our younger children.”
Ratio—the number of teachers to the number of children—is a key issue.
Longstanding Quebec governmental ratios for infants (one teacher for every five babies under 18 months) and toddlers (one teacher for every eight children over 18 months) are the worst in Canada. Most provinces stipulate ratios of one to three for infants and one to five or six for 2-year-olds.
“These guys need to be cuddled,” said Kozina. “We’re talking necessary needs.”
New brain research indicates that the first few years are critical to the way children’s brains develop and determine the way they will think, learn, and behave, both as children and as adults.
According to Gillian Doherty of the University of Guelph, the relationship between caregiver and child is the most important ingredient of care. An educator who is looking after five babies finds it very difficult to be sensitive, responsive, interested, and encouraging to each of them.
“We can barely manage at one to four,” said Carol Welp, director of the Pointe St. Charles Daycare Centre. “You have to pick them up when they want to be picked up, not when you have time.”
The directors are equally concerned about their 2-year-olds, who will be funded at a one-to-eight ratio when the $5 program comes in next year. In the past, fees from the older children subsidized better ratios for the younger ones.
Lemieux believes she can give individualized care for infants at a one-to-five ratio. But she is determined to keep her toddlers and 2-year-olds at one to six or seven. “If we have a child with a behaviour problem, we must help that child right away.”
DePoe worries about how the policy is affecting educators. With teeming classrooms and many children who have never been in daycare before, “their workload is more demanding than ever, they are in danger of burning out, and their contribution isn’t being acknowledged.” It is important to boost their salaries, which research shows are linked to the quality of care, he says.
Quebec wages range from $7 to about $13.50 an hour, at least $10,000 less than a teacher starting in a public school. The ministry budget does not envision raises, though the reform has increased training requirements. Bouchard has promised to look at the issue.
Wages are particularly low in what the province calls “centres de but lucratifs,” the 497 for-profit centres owned and run as businesses by private individuals.
Such centres can participate in the $5 plan either by agreeing to convert to non-profit status or by leasing spaces to the government. Almost all have signed on. Like the non-profit centres, the for-profits receive a grant for every child enrolled in the $5 program, but the amount is smaller.
The government’s most pressing concern is to provide more parents with $5-a-day care, especially now that Bouchard has promised access to all children by September 2000.
To open the approximately 12,000 new spaces a year that it has pledged, the government has converted non-profit centres and regulated family daycare agencies into Centres de la Petite Enfance (CPEs) and downloaded onto them virtually total responsibility for expanding the child-care network. Each centre and agency must create two new 80-place daycare centres and a family daycare agency within the next four years.
The official idea is to use “the expertise of the milieu,” but these instant CEOs, overwhelmed by the confusion and paperwork created by the new policy, are struggling to master the knowledge required for their new tasks without any support or structure from the government.
Although the CLSCs are assisting them, few directors have actively begun the process. They feel little motivation to offer low-quality child care to large numbers of children.
But pressure is mounting. They know that if they don’t open new spaces, the for-profits will.
There is a five-year moratorium on expansion in the for-profit sector, but owners are negotiating for permission to enlarge their centres from 60 spaces to 80. The situation is especially critical for children at risk and children with special needs, who benefit enormously from high-quality child care but need a more favorable teacher-child ratio.
Yvonne Clark, a social worker at the CLSC Metro, said, “Daycare is an early intervention program. It alleviates stress in the family, saves children from very difficult home situations, gives them simulation and self-esteem, and helps get them ready for school. Right now there’s a waiting list of six months to a year. I’m on my hands and knees begging to get children in.”
Spots for babies and toddlers are also in short supply. The government aims to create more by adding family daycare homes, which parents often prefer for children under 3.
At the same time the government is seeking to bring unregulated caregivers out of the underground economy and into agencies run by CPEs, where they will have easy access to support and training in safety, health, nutrition, curriculum, and tax matters.
Lemieux, who sits on a task force looking into financial aspects of the new policy, wishes the government would just slow down.
“It’s a good policy,” she said, “and we must create new spaces, but not at any price. I want to preserve quality.”
Copyright © 1991 by Judy Sklar Rasminsky. This material may not be reproduced in any manner or medium without written permission. For information, contact jud...@challengingbehavior.com.