Recent changes promise more daycare spaces in Alberta—but will they materialize, and who will look after the children?

By Jay Smith

Two years ago, when her maternity leave from a government job expired, Krista McFadyen found herself smack in the middle of Alberta’s childcare crisis. Wishing to stay home with son Lakaya, but unable to financially support herself and her son, she decided to head back to work. She first tried a daycare she had been told was excellent. But when she saw the place, its standard of hygiene, how the staff treated the children, she went back to her job and quit that day. “I thought, nope,” she says. “I’m going on welfare before I do this.” It took seven months for a spot to open up at a not-for-profit daycare at the University of Alberta, during which time McFadyen burned through her savings and relied on her close-knit family for childcare while she worked contract positions.

Despite the wait, the uncertainty and the eventual cost of the daycare, McFadyen, who now works for the City of Edmonton, considers her position to be privileged. “There are a lot of people who have children who are really alone,” she says. “They don’t have parents who help or savings.”

When it comes to childcare, Alberta is unique. Despite a booming population, daycare capacity has shrunk during the past decade; there are presently fewer than 53,000 daycare centre spots for 163,400 mothers of preschoolers. Until funding announcements last spring, Alberta was rock-bottom in terms of money spent on daycare. We’re now just below average. Compared to other provinces, we also have an unusually high percentage of for-profit daycares—a daycare model which research shows consistently performs below not-for-profits.

Perhaps most significantly, as McFadyen’s story attests, accessible childcare is intimately related to gender equality in the workforce. When women leave the workforce (sometimes temporarily, often for years) because they can’t find suitable childcare, they find themselves with less seniority than those people, mostly men, who never interrupted their careers. Many economists think this is the main reason why women earn 70 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts. Statistics Canada reports that the number of women in the Alberta workforce has been decreasing, while in Ontario and Quebec the number is growing. The report speculates that the availability of daycare and rising education levels for women in central Canada account for both trends.

Evidently, in Canada’s “land of opportunity,” there remains an inordinate challenge for mothers who decide (by choice or by need) to work outside the home. Despite their decreasing numbers, 65 per cent of Albertan women with young children still participated in the workforce in 2005—and those who couldn’t find a daycare spot were left to rely on the often unpredictable network of family, friends and nannies.

“Imagine that the federal government is on the verge of an election, and it’s revealed that the richest province in the country dumped $25.9-million… that had been earmarked for the creation of new daycare spaces into general revenues.” This is how Bill Moore-Kilgannon neatly summarizes an unfortunately non-hypothetical scenario. The executive director of Public Interest Alberta sits in front of a thick stack of papers, the results of a Freedom of Information request he filed in December of 2007 on behalf of PIA, a non-partisan advocacy organization based in Edmonton. In January, he was informed the search would cost $600, of which he had to pay $315.25 up front. The information wasn’t released to PIA until election day, March 3, 2008.

Too often, we focus on the wrong things when it comes to childcare: the cleanliness, the hygiene, the number of toys, the ratio of children to staff.  But the quality of the staff is the most critical component of a good daycare.

“In the end, it cost $405, he says. “This is what we got: a whole bunch of blank pages. And some of our own press releases.” He flips through the mostly white pages, estimating that 80 per cent of the document was excised under two Freedom of Information & Protection of Privacy Act provisions: the specific section 21(1)(a) (“disclosure could reasonably be expected to harm [intergovernmental] relations”) or the much broader
s. 24(1)(a) (“The head of a public body may refuse to disclose information… if the disclosure could reasonably be expected to reveal… advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options developed by or for a public body…”) The latter, as Moore-Kilgannon points out, “could mean just about anything.”

Moore-Kilgannon was specifically interested in a federal transfer of $25.9-million to our provincial government. As the Harper government made abundantly clear when it was elected in 2006, daycare was far from a priority. One of the government’s first post-election announcements was to eliminate the Liberals’ daycare strategy.

It replaced the Liberals’ nascent plan for an accessible and affordable national plan with a $100-a-month stipend that, as the rhetoric went, would enable parents to have “choice” about whether their children would stay at home with a parent or attend daycare. This money only covers a fraction of daycare fees, which in 2005 cost the average Albertan family at least $544 a month according to the Ministry of Children & Youth Services, which doesn’t distinguish between part- and full-time care (full-time care, obviously, costs more); based on a recent informal survey of Edmonton not-for-profit daycares, the average cost of full-time care in 2008 is closer to $800 a month. The federal money is considered taxable income, so very few families actually retain the $1,200 annually. The monies taxed back were announced as a $250-million initiative to increase childcare spaces—how, the federal government left up to the provinces to figure out. So the federal government sent the money with the non-binding request that it be used to increase the number of childcare spaces available in each province. Alberta’s share amounted to $25.9-million.

Still following? The one thing that becomes apparent in tracking monies for childcare is the extent to which it feels like playing a shell game with government bureaucracy. “We’d been hearing from folks on the inside that the money had been dumped into general revenues,” explains Moore-Kilgannon. “[All the] while there was a crisis happening in the province with childcare, a crisis in availability, a crisis in quality, the provincial government was carrying on as if [there wasn’t].”

Spokespeople for the Ministry of Children & Youth Services claim that the provincial government anticipated the funds and included them as part of a $16-million increase in the 2007 budget. But PIA’s Freedom of Information request indicates otherwise. “It was clear that there was no advance notice coming to the province,” says Moore-Kilgannon. “The first e-mails circulated around this obviously show the top people in Children & Youth Services were hearing about it in March. …They couldn’t have budgeted for it.”


(Photo by Jay Smith)

In the fall of 2007, various media began reporting on the “lost” $25.9-million. In December, PIA filed its FOIP request. Moore-Kilgannon believes that the resulting public outcry, as well as increased pressure from major employers in the province who are having difficulty hiring because would-be employees lack childcare, resulted in the government’s funding increases in the 2008 budget.

In May, the Ministry of Children & Youth Services announced a commitment to create 14,000 new childcare spaces. It also raised provincial daycare subsidy rates according to inflation, increased the proportion of childcare professionals’ wages that the government pays, introduced some bursaries and generally increased spending.

“There’s always really nice rhetoric,” Moore-Kilgannon responds. “People think ‘oh look at the huge budget increases.’ …But you have to look at what they actually spend.”

What they actually spend is regularly about one third less than budgeted. The ministry claims this is because some funds, such as the Byzantine daycare subsidy program and the subsidy for stay-at-home parents’ programs, have less uptake than anticipated. This discrepancy between funds made available and funds actually applied for, however, amounts to approximately a third of the budget for childcare. Moore-Kilgannon wonders if ministers are rewarded proportionally for coming in under budget. After several calls to various government bodies were made, a spokesperson from Corporate Human Resources finally said that ministers’ bonuses are tied to being “fiscally responsible and accountable,” but would not explain further.

Indeed, the prevalence of conservatism in Alberta—both the fiscal and social varieties—seems to influence the government’s attitude toward childcare.

“There’s always this dynamic tension within the Conservative party,” explains Moore-Kilgannon. “For many Conservative supporters, there’s a conception of the family where the woman is meant to stay home and look after the kids. Providing quality childcare somehow undermines the traditional role of a woman. The other side of the Conservatives is the fiscal side, particularly [those concerned] with our incredible labour shortage. They see the lack of access to childcare [as] a huge barrier for women to enter the workforce.”

Nonetheless, says Moore-Kilgannon, there’s reason for optimism. “You have to look at the good news,” he says. “They’ve hugely increased the budget this year. For years, spending on childcare decreased rapidly. Finally, we’re getting back to where we were in 1992. Before, we were really rock- bottom in comparison to other provinces.”

The other good news is that the government is trending toward actually spending on daycare the amount of money they budget for it. For 2006/07, Alberta budgeted approximately $147-million for daycare, but actually spent $103.7-million, some $33-million less than announced. In 2007/08, the budget was $134-million; $121-million was actually spent, a shortfall of some $13-million, but a higher overall amount. The 2008 provincial budget was announced at $196.6-million.

Before these numbers inspire anyone to have another child, some perspective is needed. Jane Hewes, chair of Grant MacEwan College’s early childhood program, estimates that the proposed 14,000 new daycare spaces will require roughly 2,500 to 3,000 new workers. “It’s an aggressive target,” she says. “It’s clear that we need these spaces, but it’s also clear that we need quality workers to fill those spaces.”

Playtime is an opportunity to teach numbers, colours and shapes as long as the childcare worker has time or sufficient training.

Playtime is an opportunity to teach numbers, colours and shapes—as long as the childcare worker has time or sufficient training. (Jay Smith)

“It isn’t unskilled work,” continues Hewes. “For me, the biggest challenge is making sure that the people who are doing this work have the knowledge and skills to do it well. And that, in my expert but humble opinion, requires post-secondary education. We do a disservice to children and families if we try to do it otherwise.”

Annually, MacEwan graduates about 80 students with an Early Childhood diploma, a two-year program providing Level Three certification. Daycare staff must have one of three levels of certification. The first is a 50-hour course that permits one to work in a daycare. The second is a one-year diploma. The third requires two years of post-secondary study at a public institution such as MacEwan (or a considerably more lax private college). Most not-for-profit daycares only hire workers who have or are actively pursuing their Level Three certification.

In response to the demands 14,000 new spaces will create, the Alberta government has put Level One certification online, and it will now grant anyone with an education degree (with or without any training specific to early childhood) Level Three equivalency. Anyone with a licensed practical nurse designation, a bachelor’s in sociology, psychology or physical education now qualifies for Level Two.

For Martha Friendly, coordinator of the Childcare Research & Resource Unit (a Canadian think tank), this is exactly the wrong response. “It’s completely contrary to research,” she says. “Early childhood education is important. What Canada is doing in regards to ECE is not consistent with research. Having a bachelor’s degree makes a difference, but [only if] it’s a BEd in ECE, not in teaching high school history… The Alberta government is correctly identifying the problem with accessibility, but it’s also a quality crisis. If you’re sacrificing quality by lowering standards, that’s a problem.”

“The announcement of 14,000 new spaces is kind of unrealistic in terms of finding quality daycare workers,” agrees Laura Ghali, a researcher with the Fraser Mustard Chair, an interdisciplinary team at the University of Calgary. The chair investigates childhood development from sociological, economic, psychological and medical perspectives.

“A tremendous amount of learning and brain development happens in the preschool period,” Ghali explains. “If children are fed properly, stimulated, if they form positive attachments to workers who are sensitive to children…”

Too often, Ghali says, we focus on the wrong things when it comes to childcare. “There are many indicators that measure the quality of the daycare environment,” she says. “Some are purely environmental: the cleanliness, the hygiene, the number of toys, the ratio of children to staff. But the quality of the staff is probably the most critical component of what makes a good, quality, daycare experience… It’s clear that many of the spaces [for childcare professionals] are being filled by people whose English language skills are low. That’s one of the critical issues that’s going to develop if we’re really pushing for 14,000 new spaces. …Where are you going to find [qualified] people?”

Ghali cites two studies. The first, “Two Years in Early Care and Education: English Literacy Levels of the Early Care and Education Workforce—A Profile and Associations with Quality of Care,” by Deborah Phillips (2002), shows that good literacy skills in childcare professionals contribute to a higher-quality care for children. The other, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age Three,” by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risely (2003), found that early exposure to diverse and plentiful language strongly predicted future academic success. The difference in language use between “professional” and “welfare” families, extrapolated over the first three years of a child’s life, amounted to 30 million fewer words.

These studies make it abundantly clear that professional childcare is anything but “babysitting” or “childminding.” Rather, it can be a radical means of improving the fortunes of society’s less fortunate. Friendly points out that this shouldn’t be taken as an insult to anyone’s parenting skills: children from all social strata benefit from quality early-childhood education. The difference is just more marked in parents working with fewer resources.

“We focus on how many new, great Fisher Price plastic toys we have, how hot the water is for sanitizing dishes, but we don’t focus on really critical elements like how much language children hear,” adds Ghali. “A good, positive preschool or daycare environment teaches literacy and numeracy, not in a curriculum way but… when a child is playing with blocks, it’s an opportunity to talk about numbers, colours, shapes. If the childcare worker isn’t talking, it’s really a missed opportunity.”

“I was in Calgary the other day, and I saw a daycare with spaces available,” says Natalie Weller, director of childcare services for the town of Beaumont. “But they can’t have quality spaces. Not when we have 200 children on our wait list.” Weller has 25 years experience in the childcare sector, 15 of which were in Beaumont. She’s worked in private, not-for-profit and municipal daycares. According to Weller, as well as a wealth of studies, all daycares are not created equal.

Alberta is unique among Canadian provinces in its embrace of for-profit daycares. Across Canada, fully 80 per cent of daycares are not-for-profit. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories permit only not-for-profit, while Saskatchewan and Manitoba have rates in the high 90s. In Alberta, only 47 per cent of daycares are not-for-profit. Almost all the rest are for-profit, since Weller’s daycare in Beaumont is one of only two municipally run daycares in the province.

Weller notes studies showing that non-profit daycares outperform for-profits. “When the research shows that a systematic approach and non-profit and community-based childcare does better than private, why is Alberta not focusing on high-quality, accessible childcare?” asks Weller. “They could have grandfathered legislation in. They could do that with the new spaces… and permit only new, not-for-profit spaces.” [For some of the distinctions between for-profit and not-for-profit daycares, see “An Economic Perspective on the Current and Future Role of Non-Profit Provision of Early Learning and Child Care Services in Canada,” by Gordon Cleveland et al., available at www.privatization.crru.ca.]

Childcare in other provinces is often considered a social service, says Weller. “Why did [Alberta] decide to make childcare a commercial initiative?” she asks. “It’s about defending the rights of the friggin’ owners [over] children’s rights.”

In addition to licensing daycares, Alberta has a system of accreditation that distinguishes daycares that exceed the licensing standards. Accreditation is voluntary, but only daycares that participate in the program receive provincial funding. Accordingly, the government claims 95 per cent of daycares in the province are “involved” in accreditation, which means that they are either accredited (about 58 per cent of daycares), are in the 12- to 15-month process of getting accreditation, or have failed accreditation and are trying again.

Not-for-profits and for-profits are accredited under the same criteria. But Weller is skeptical of accreditation as proof that for-profit daycares are as good as not-for-profits. “There’s a variance amongst accredited [facilities],” she says. “If your caregivers are not being paid well enough, if they don’t have the understanding of child development, then those positive interactions aren’t there… To think that 95 per cent of [daycare] programs in Alberta are excellent is one big joke.”

Cathy Ducharme, spokesperson for the Ministry of Children & Youth Services, disagrees. “We’re seeing in Alberta that for-profit businesses are also demonstrating high quality.” Speaking of the recent government initiatives, Ducharme says, “It’s a really bright future for childcare in Alberta.”

A good part of this “bright future” involves the 14,000 new spaces. Ducharme adds that new licensing standards will permit day homes, previously capped at five children, to take in up to 10 children. There’s also new licensing for “innovative childcare,” she says. “We don’t know what that looks like yet. It’s for the communities to decide what works for them.”

Rather than speak with the “cynical minority” concerned about public dollars going toward the private profits of daycare operators, Ducharme suggested I speak with Sherrill Brown, the outgoing chair of the Alberta Childcare Network Association, an umbrella organization of childcare associations. Brown, said Ducharme, would confirm this “really bright future.” When asked if there was any difference in quality standards between for-profit and not-for-profit childcare facilities, however, Brown refused comment.

In June, the Canadian Labour Congress gave Alberta a D for its childcare programs. The CLC added: “Solutions are not evidence-based—giving capital funds to for-profit operators is a false fix. Public control of publicly funded assets is essential.”

At Public Interest Alberta, Moore-Kilgannon too is skeptical. “If the province is going to increasingly fund private, for-profit childcare, then it’s their responsibility to do the studies that prove they can provide equal-quality childcare,” he says. “And they also need to be able to say how much of the government subsidy is going into the profit margins of these companies. They should know that. But the fact is, they haven’t done any studies… showing that they’re getting quality for the public dollars they’re putting into private corporations. That means they’re not being fiscally accountable with taxpayers’ dollars.”

Jay Smith sends her 3-year-old daughter to daycare three days a week. She charms friends and family into watching her 9-month-old son while freelancing for publications across Canada.


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