Early education plan draws questions, critics

Parents should hold onto their day care spaces for now, despite the June 15 report from the provincial government that outlines plans to offer full-day Kin­dergarten and after school care for children to the age of 12.

The provincial report by Dr. Charles Pascal was to recom­mend the best way to im­plement full-day learning for 4- and 5-year-olds. The full report, With our best future in mind, is available at www.­ontario.ca/earlylearning.

The report said more than one in four children enter grade 1 significantly behind their peers, and many never close the gap, and go on to be disruptive in school, fail to graduate and are unable to fully participate in and contri­bute to society.

The report said the province has many good early childhood services, but they are discon­nected and too often failing the best interests of children. It also states establishing a strong founda­tion in the early years and building on it is the most pow­erful key to Ontario’s social and economic future.

The report recommends a system of services for children and fam­ilies from the prenatal period to age 12, including:

– full day learning for 4- and 5-year olds, starting in Sep­tember 2010 and available province-wide within three years;

– parents have a choice about their child’s partici­pation, including the option of full-day or half-day fee-based programming (before and after traditional school hours and during the summer holidays) offered at the re­quest of 15 or more families;  and

– programs be staffed by well trained teams of teachers and early childhood educators working with an established, consistent curriculum and ap­proach to learning.

The report recommends the first phase include lower-in­come neighbourhoods.

There are to be before and after school programs for all school age children and sum­mer programming to bolster academic success, parti­cularly for disadvantaged child­ren.

The report recommends new spending for full-day learn­­ing and consolidation and reorganization of existing re­sources to allow schools to of­fer extended day and year-round programs for school-age children (6 to 12 years old) at the request of 15 or more fam­ilies.

Appropriately trained school board employees will offer homework help and recre­ational and other activities.

To meet the needs of stud­ents 9 to 12, school boards may con­tract with municipal recre­ation programs or community agen­cies to provide activities.

Programs operating before and after school and in the summer would be funded by parent fees, and subsidies for low-income families would be available.

Integrating early learning into a single program would result in significant savings for parents compared with the cost of traditional licensed child care for 4- to 12-year-olds.

To support children and fam­ilies during the earliest years of development, the report recommends:

– many existing child and family programs be consoli­dated into a network of Best Start Child and Family Centres under the systems management of muni­cipalities;

– the centres be located in or partnered with schools, and pro­vide flexible full-day, full-year, and part-time child care for children to age 4 (supported by parent fees, with subsidies for low-income fami­lies);

– the centres be a one-stop opportunity for pre- and post­natal supports, parenting re­sources and pro­grams, play­groups, linkages to com­mu­nity resources, with early identifi­cation and intervention for children with special needs, and other early learning ser­vices.

Changes to child care fee subsidy eligibility will open participation to more children.

Finally, the report suggests enhanced parental leave to spend more time with a new baby. The report recommends an improved parental leave and benefits program be established by 2020, and include:

– paid parental leave of 400 days after the birth or adoption of a child;

– six weeks of leave desig­nated exclusively for the father or non-birthing parent; 

– expanded coverage to in­clude self-employed parents; 

– flexibility for parents on leave to return to work part-time;

– 10 days of legislated job-protected leave annually for parents of children under 12.

The report also calls for local municipal leadership and local service planning for a child and family system for children from birth to age 12, and a new Early Years divi­sion within the Ontario Ministry of Education to lead policy, funding, and accountability for program­ming for children from birth to age 8.

Local reaction

Maggie McFadzen, the communications director for the Upper Grand District School Board said in an interview on Monday afternoon she had been receiving calls from par­ents and day care providers over the announcement.

She said parents felt that since schools would be taking over day care in the next year, they could give up their places. Day care operators were con­cerned they might be put out of business.

McFadzen said people should not act quickly on the report because McGuinty him­self had noted at a press conference that the province is economically challenged right now, and implementation, even over three years, could cost $1-billion,with more to maintain the system annually.

McFadzen said uncertain­ties for timing do not mean the report is wrong or bad, and the board had been expecting it since Pascal’s study was an­nounced nearly two years ago.

“We do have some pro-grams in our schools,” she said, but noted that there are “a lot of challenges” in implementing the program, “the least of which is money.”

She said there are concerns of teachers and early childhood education workers conflicts, overlaps with ministries, some concerns about municipal in­volvement.

“The devil is in the details,” she said.

She also noted there is a major push on to have schools used by the community 50 weeks a year, and that creates issues for cleaning and safety.

Not only is the concerns about the mix for teachers and early childhood education work­ers, “We’ve got some fed­erally funded child care as well,” she said.

Provincial critique

The Progressive Conserva­tive education critic Joyce Savoline condemned McGuin­ty for announcing a massive overhaul of early learning in Ontario without providing any details on cost or im­plemen­tation.

She noted McGuinty re­sponded in a media scrum that he “doesn’t know” the financial impact on taxpayers of harmo­nizing kindergarten and day­care for children aged 4 and 5, other than to say it will cost “a lot.”

Savoline said, “It is utterly shameful that the premier, es­pe­cially in these challenging eco­nomic times, would an­nounce an initiative of such magnitude without having even the slightest clue about the cost. Because Ontario is in a deficit situation and this wasn’t an­nounced in the 2009 budget, we don’t even know where he in­tends to find the money to pay for it.”

She cited out an RBC report released Monday stating On­tario’s economy is projected to shrink by 3.4% this year, one of the biggest economic drops in Canada.

“This early education an­nouncement has turned into an issue of the premier spend­ing ‘a lot’ of money he simply doesn’t have,” said Savoline. “He has the nerve to propose a wide-reaching initiative with­out a plan, while leaving hope­ful parents, school boards and municipalities in the dark on the details.”

Savoline added that Mc­Guinty’s approach to harmoni­za­tion of kindergarten and day­care for children is similar to his method of announcing the harmonization of the PST and GST.

“The premier still doesn’t know the details of his own new sales tax, either,” she said. “This government is develop­ing a pattern of making major costly announcements and not providing details to back them up – that’s simply irrespon­sible.”