The Daycare Debates

The Tories’ commitment to “choice” – read “for-profit daycare” – may compromise quality care.

By Cheryl Mahaffy

“Everybody thinks children can be hung on a hook from 0 to 5 and then go into schools,” says Anita Cooper, Lethbridge Community College early childhood development coordinator, venting frustration pent up through 40 years in the field and the classroom. “What is it about child care programs that is seen as undeserving of funding?”

In the next breath Cooper switches perspectives, as happens so often in conversation with the women (usually) who’ve pushed long and hard to improve learning and care for our youngest: “It’s not all doom and gloom. It isn’t.”

The care and teaching of Alberta’s youngest is at a critical juncture. Three out of four Alberta mothers with children under age 5 are in the paid workforce. The majority of families with pre-school-age children require child care of some kind. But after years of scrabbling to make do following a phase-out of provincial operating subsidies that spurred daycare staff turnover to reach 50 per cent a year, the field is celebrating two significant milestones. First, child care in Alberta is set to receive more than double the public investment thanks to a federal Liberal promise of a five-year infusion of $489-million as part of a long-awaited initiative to expand high-quality early learning and child care across the nation. Second, a new mentoring, coaching and accreditation framework aims to raise the bar in a profession whose standards have long been neglected. Yet observers such as Public Interest Alberta (PIA) fear both initiatives could run amok under a provincial government that habitually places so-called choice ahead of quality, universality and accessibility.

In the name of choice, Alberta insisted on allowing for-profit daycares to benefit from the federal money flowing into the province. “We have been very, very adamant that we want to respect Albertans’ rights and let Albertans make the choices for their children, whether it’s non-profit or for-profit care,” said Minister of Children’s Services Heather Forsyth. That insistence forced federal Minister of Social Development at the time, Ken Dryden to negotiate separate deals with each province rather than one multilateral agreement. Those who support non-profit daycare fear the resulting agreement in principle between Alberta and the federal government set the stage for a repeat of what has occurred in Australia, where public funds are being siphoned o$ by commercial chains whose first priority, by law, is not children’s care, but investor profit. What’s needed, critics say, is a fundamental shift from viewing child care as a commodity to considering it a public good.

Australian mother and social policy analyst Lynne Wannan criss-crossed Canada this fall to caution against the path Alberta seems headed down: providing dollars for daycare without the checks and balances needed to guard against predatory practices by commercial chains. Australia took the commercial path in the name of competition and choice, she told an Edmonton audience, and ironically both have diminished as a result.

Australia began enticing commercial operators to enter the market in 1991 by allowing for-profits to accept parent fee subsidies previously usable only at not-for-profits, Wannan says. The government also discontinued the strategic planning that had been directing growth to high-need areas, and dropped operational support just as Alberta did in the late nineties.

Since then, for-profit centres in Australia have risen from 15 per cent of the total to 70 per cent, equal to Alberta’s status quo. Rather than filling gaps, for-profits typically choose promising neighbourhoods already served by other centres, undercut prices until competitors are strangled, then raise fees, Wannan says. Increasingly, publicly listed chains dominate the scene as investors realize that caring for children attracts federal dollars, which can help finance real estate development. Concentration of ownership has reached the point where Australia’s competition police are barring certain chains from opening any more child-care centres in certain communities.

ABC Learning Centres operates a fifth of Australia’s daycare spaces—700-plus facilities—after gobbling up its largest competitor and growing fast. The chain claimed a $68- million profit in its most recent financial year, with more than half its revenue coming from government subsidies. A raft of directors and administrators earn salaries as high as $400,000, yet caregivers take home minimal wages, creating a revolving door of employees in a profession known to do its best work when children, families and staff build stable relationships. Even so, ABC assures investors it is intent on reducing staffing costs.

This has led to sharp criticism from some parents and workers groups. ABC Learning has sued the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union in Queensland for defamation. Commercial centres, meanwhile, face charges of breached child/staff ratios, inadequate supervision, poor hygiene and substandard programming.

The issue is a hot topic in the Australian media, with frequent reports on commercial daycare centres cutting staff and cleaning services, axing programs and slashing food costs. At the same time, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, fees have risen almost five times faster than either the increase in government assistance or the consumer price index. In upscale neighbourhoods, parents are paying as much as $100 a day.

True, the number of centres across Australia has risen markedly since 1991, but the family and community connections so important to healthy growth have declined. What’s more, supply still doesn’t meet demand, particularly in less affluent communities and for time-intensive infants and toddlers. Thus the competitive environment that might regulate quality and price in another sector isn’t working, Wannan says. “If a place is available, parents simply have to take it.”

From their position of dominance, commercial players are lobbying for reduced standards and increased subsidies. What’s more, says Wannan “Being privately owned, there’s no guarantee they will be here tomorrow. No guarantee that any of our government investment—now billions of dollars—has built a system that will last. We’re just subsidizing shareholders.

“We went down this road of commercialization in child care with all the rhetoric of competition and choice, and the absolute opposite has happened. Now it’s very hard to imagine we can escape. It’s been a big shock. None of us, I don’t think even the government, quite anticipated the result.”

Investor-driven child care chains could be headed our way. ABC Learning CEO Eddy Groves originally hails from Canada. Upon hearing from Toronto Star reporter Laurie Monsebraaten that Ottawa was poised to inject $5-billion into child care, he responded, “It sounds like a great opportunity.”

Having worked in both for-profit and not-for-profit child care centres by the time her two daughters were born, Philomena Martens knew she wanted the latter for them. Her daughters are teenagers now, but a recent job shift from another for-profit to Edmonton’s not-for-profit Primrose Place reconfirmed her choice. “Here, children are valued and people really understand that they have a big impact on them, their futures and the families they come from.” At the for- profit, Martens was forced to plant kids in front of the TV for several hours a day due to inadequate staffing and the lack of a cook. Research corroborates Martens’s experience: although exceptions exist, for-profit centres typically provide lower quality care than not-for-profits.

“The for-profit centre I was at seemed to believe that as long as the kids were happy and safe, that’s enough. And it’s not,” she says. “If licensing were to shut down centres that are just managing to keep kids happy and safe, there would be very little child care available,” says Martens. “As long as nobody’s being physically hurt and no mice and cockroaches are scurrying around, those centres will be open.”

When Lisa Nicolai scouted for daycare, she wanted something good, but needed it to be near work so she could pick up six-month-old Mekayla before closing time. She chose a site in a downtown Edmonton professional building that seemed okay on both accounts. Not until three and a half years later, when provincial authorities closed the place for infractions ranging from inadequate staffing to substandard nutrition, did Nicolai realize just what her daughter was missing. “I’d never had her in another daycare, so I thought it was fine,” she says.

How many parents can choose to stay home with their kids? Realities turn the appearance of choice into a sham. Three out of four Alberta mothers with children under age 5 are in the paid workforce.

Moved to a second daycare, Mekayla enjoyed markedly better care, including more outdoor play, field trips, creative crafts and stable staffing. Both daughter and mom grew to trust the caregivers, who readily offered updates about Mekayla’s day.

The Nicolais’ experience is replicated daily, says Jane Beach, a researcher with the University of Toronto’s Childcare Resource and Research Unit (CRRU). “A lot of parents are overwhelmed by trying to find high-quality registered child care, so they choose either what they can afford or something nearby—and that’s not real choice.”

The accreditation framework just implemented in Alberta aims to raise standards. Rather than holding all centres to an enforced level of excellence, it makes excellence a voluntary, but enticing, choice. Many child-care leaders welcome Alberta’s year-old accreditation system and are proud that it’s the first to launch in Canada. “I tell my students they’re entering the field at a really hopeful time,” says Colleen Friendship, who teaches in Grant MacEwan College’s early childhood development program. Like many, she expects accreditation to spur widespread improvement, particularly because the province earmarked some of its new federal dollars to boost the accreditation incentives.

Under a complex formula unveiled by Alberta Minister of Children’s Services Heather Forsyth last October, those enhanced incentives include program support ranging from $450 for a small pre-accredited daycare to $5,280 for a large, fully accredited centre or family day home agency; wage supplements ranging from 64 cents to $2.96 an hour per employee, depending on level of training and accreditation status; and quadrupled professional development grants of $1,000 a year per staff member. Other aspects of the minister’s five-point plan for using the new federal dollars will expand fee subsidies for parents using regulated child care services; help stay- at-home parents pay for nursery school and other learning opportunities; improve care for children with disabilities; and operate 1-866-714-KIDS, a toll-free information line about available services.

Even before the increased incentives, interest in accreditation was high. The Alberta Association for the Accreditation of Early Learning and Care Services, launched at arm’s length from the government after considerable grassroots consultation, received applications from more than half of the 550-odd eligible centres and family day home agencies before the end of its first year last October. “To have had that kind of buy-in within one year is tremendously exciting,” says executive director Sandra Beckman.

Meanwhile, the self-study, coaching and mentoring built into the accreditation framework through a second new body, the Alberta Resource Centre for Quality Enhancement, is injecting a sense of professionalism and worth into the field, says Friendship, who visits daycares as both mentor and Grant MacEwan College field placement supervisor.

That recognition of worth is long overdue, she adds, recalling colleagues who’ve left frontline care in search of not only livable wages but benefits, which are particularly scarce in for-profit centres. Friendship recalls that even as a comparatively well-paid caregiver at the Grant MacEwan model daycare centre during her two children’s preschool years, she could not afford to place them where she worked. The late-nineties phase-out of operating grants caused wages to deteriorate even more. “People began leaving the field in droves, and a huge staff shortage developed,” she says. Ideally, accreditation will help staunch the outflow of talent while giving parents a tool to use in choosing quality caregiving.

Margaret Golberg,  whose 1999 accreditaton study as a Muttart fellow prompted the early learning and child care community to favour this approach, agrees the framework provides renewed hope. Yet she remains wary about how accreditation will play out in Alberta, where investment in child care has been falling while jurisdictions such as Québec and Manitoba surge ahead. Provincial funding for regulated child care has declined in Alberta over the last decade from $67.6-million in 1995 to $53.6-million in 2003/04. Over the same period, Manitoba increased spending on child care from $45.2-million to $73-million, and Québec, increased from $203.7-million to an estimated $1.6-billion.

“It’s been a struggle in the field to maintain quality,” says Golberg. Lack of trained staff is the single biggest barrier to daycare quality, Golberg says. With average wages at little more than $8 an hour, she fears a few dollars more may not be enough to keep caregivers in the field. Nor do the incentive dollars available through accreditation substitute for lost operating funds, says U of A’s Laurie Adkin. Alberta still spends the least of all provinces on early care and learning—$104 for each child 0 to 12, or $1,118 per regulated child care space. No matter how you measure it, Alberta’s investment is the lowest in the country, and has been declining. Québec invests four times as much as Alberta on each child care space—and uses the bulk of that money to broaden access to quality care. Most of Alberta’s funds go to parents needing subsidy, and Alberta’s five-point plan for using the latest infusion of federal funds continues that trend.

Wannan, who helped shape Australia’s widely copied accreditation system, also injects a note of caution. “I thought it was a great process, but now I don’t actually have much confidence in it,” she says. A key issue is the lack of unannounced visits by validators hired to confirm a centre’s self-assessment. “We hear of services renting equipment and bringing in whatever else they need to make themselves comply.”

The same may already be happening in Alberta, says Becky Kelley, program leader in early childhood education at Bow Valley College in Calgary. Daycare staff taking her courses tell of operators who shift workers from one site to another when the accreditation team is due to arrive.

“Often, accreditation is something centres go through once, make improvements, but then slide back again,” says  the CRRU’s Beach. She adds, however, “It’s probably better than nothing. Anything that gets child-care centres to do self- evaluations and look at their programming is a good thing.

But when it’s the only thing, it may not have the results you expect. Especially when you have low wages and horrendous staff turnover.”

For many parents outside of Alberta’s major cities, it’s not a question of choosing child care, but of finding it.

Lorene Rose ran the daycare in High Prairie for over 18 years. Her community includes several reserves and Métis settlements, numerous farms and many single parents working or attending school. “We built a brand new building, but just as it was finished the government took operating allowances away,” says Rose. “We then started the struggle to keep our doors open.”

The loss of operating funds forced the centre to increase fees and markedly cut wages that at about $12 an hour had been among the highest in Alberta daycare. Unable to attract and keep qualified staff, the centre operated with “exceptions” or below-regulation staffing, an all too common scenario across the province. Facing higher fees, parents found unlicensed options for preschoolers and pulled three-quarters of their children from out-of-school care, finding other, cheaper options for care for older kids and likely leaving some kids at home untended, a choice that is neither legal nor wise.

High Prairie’s daycare closed in 2000. Rose has since responded to parent demand by opening Safe Haven Dayhomes, a cluster of homes licensed through her agency. Each can care for up to six children, including their own. “My homes are all full and I have a waiting list, especially for babies,” she says. “There’s a real need for daycare, including care at odd hours.”

As one of the communities slated to receive a Parent Link Centre, High Prairie hopes to build enough synergy to reopen at least a small daycare, Rose says. Without public start-up and operating funds, however, she predicts it will be a struggle. Meanwhile, parents who qualify for subsidies have no option but a licensed day home. The new rates double the gap between day home and daycare subsidies, she points out. “They’re penalizing parents for picking day homes. And in a situation like High Prairie, where there is no daycare, parents don’t have a choice.”

“Accreditation is probably better than nothing. But when it’s the only thing; it may not have the results you expect. Especially when you have low wages and horrendous staff turnover.” – Jane Beach

More children in Alberta are cared for in homes than in daycare centres. This includes children cared for by a relative, nanny, friend or neighbour, as well as the over 6,500 children cared for in family day homes. But there is only one training program in the province dedicated to serving day home operators: the Candora Society in northeast Edmonton.

In Alberta, day homes can be opened through one of 88 agencies or independently, says Trina Keiver, training facilitator at Candora. Providers who choose an agency will go through various security checks and must take first-aid  training within three months of opening. In addition, if their agency is enrolled in the new accreditation program, they should receive training funds.

For most home-based care, any training happens after the home opens for business or not at all, Keiver says. “Whereas in this program—and this is where there is a strong need in Alberta—they train before they start caring for children.” In addition to first aid, the Candora program covers such topics as strategies for handling abuse, working with families, making nutritious meals, helping children explore and learn, using community resources and running a small business.

“People can start providing care with no form of accreditation or training,” says Diane Sopher, a nurse who facilitates Candora children’s programs. “It’s like being a parent, but you’re learning on other people’s children.”

Day home training took root at Candora because women wanted it and it evolved to meet their needs. The grassroots approach is the only way to offer choice that meshes with people’s lives, Sopher says. She’s nervous about the government’s approach to introducing new programs, including the Parent Link Centres springing up across Alberta. “There was very limited parent involvement,” she says. “My experience in community development is that if we come in and prescribe what programs are to be offered, quite often they’re not successful.”

With 541 regulated daycares offering 26,574 spaces, plus 6,554 regulated day home spaces, the government regularly points out that Alberta has surplus capacity—5,724 extra spaces, at last count. But this number ignores the pressure points: rural care, infant care, night care, special-needs care, affordable care, quality care.

Low base funding, coupled with reliance on market forces rather than strategic planning, makes Alberta’s pressure points more acute, says PIA’s Bill Moore-Kilgannon. “We only have 9.2 per cent of children under age 5 accessing licensed child care in this province, the lowest in Canada by far. Why is that? Do parents want to make other choices? Or are barriers forcing them to make a choice they wouldn’t otherwise make?”

Choice. It’s oft-repeated within the provincial Ministry for Children’s Services: parents should be able to choose whether to stay home or work, whether to use informal or regulated care, whether to find a commercial or a not-for-profit operator. Yet, as voices in High Prairie and other communities remind us, barriers limit parental choice.

Consider this: How many parents can really choose to stay home with their preschoolers? Economic realities, coupled with Alberta’s own policies, turn the appearance of choice into a sham, says the U of A’s Adkin. “The government’s claim to be fighting for parents’ choice to stay home is supremely ironic, given that the centerpiece of Alberta’s family policy since 1978 has been child-care subsidies available only to low-income parents who work, are searching for work, are in training for work, or who have special needs. The government has never proposed measures—for example, fiscal reforms, changes to labour legislation, employer requirements or parental insurance top-ups—to support caregivers in the home.” Nor does the fine print encourage part-time work; mothers regularly put children in daycare for more hours than necessary, simply to hold a spot.

Alberta will use some of its new Liberal federal funds to offer stay-at-home parents up to $100 a month for child care. This is similar to the election campaign promise made by the federal Conservatives that would see parents receive $100 a month for each child under 6 rather than funding daycares directly. The emerging system of Parent Link Centres also aims to support stay-at-home as well as working parents by offering one-stop education, care, support, information and referral. While potentially positive, Adkin says, those initiatives are no substitute for policies that make it feasible for parents to stay at home with their children. Those policies, she says, might include guaranteed job security for persons on extended parenting leave, livable leave payments for parents of all incomes, pension systems that avoid penalizing caregivers, reduced and flexible work hours, and removal of sales tax on infants’ and children’s essentials.

Financial barriers not only send parents to work when they would rather stay home, but limit their options for care. Without the operational grants that provided base funding in the eighties and nineties, daycare centres typically charge more than $500 a month, four times the rate in Québec. Parents seeking infant care or excellence find fees as high as $900. Lower-income parents can obtain money through Children’s Services to help pay for care in licensed centres and day homes, but those subsidies rarely cover the entire fee.

Forsyth’s five-point plan for using the new federal dollars addresses affordability concerns by deepening the pool of parent subsidies. Maximum subsidies will rise 25 per cent, to $575 a month for infants in daycare ($475 in family day homes) and $500 a month for older preschoolers in daycare ($400 in family day homes). The income threshold will also rise 25 per cent, with full subsidies available to families earning up to $39,600 and partial subsidies available for those earning up to $70,000.

Children’s Services expects the expanded subsidies to attract 6,000 additional children to licensed daycare, Adkin notes. “These measures will also—as KPMG told the government in 2002—reduce the province’s welfare budget. So the government of Alberta gets a ‘double gift’ from the federal government: money for child care subsidies and a net budget gain.”

However, Moore-Kilgannon is not optimistic. “Everyone around the table knows child-care centres are desperate and underfunded. So the increases in subsidy will most likely translate into increases in total fees, and low-income parents will still be paying the same amount.” Thus the cost of regulated care may continue to tip many families into less- expensive informal care, which varies wildly from excellent to developmentally stifling and even unsafe.

“The whole system in Alberta is rooted in child care being a commodity rather than a public service,” says Moore- Kilgannon. “The government’s approach is, ‘what can the individual family buy for their children?’ rather than ‘What can we do, as a society, to make sure all children can get a good start on life?’” The federal infusion of dollars handed Alberta an opportunity to change that, he adds; instead, we face the spectre of having both quality and choice siphoned away by child-care chains.

Choice in Government of Alberta terms still means allowing market forces to rule early learning and child care, supplemented by parental subsidies in a pinch. Or as New Democrat MLA Raj Pannu puts it, “Choice is Tory-speak for not having a plan of their own.

“The government’s approach is, “what can the individual family buy for their children?’ rather than ‘what can we do, as a society, to make sure all children get a good start on life?” – Bill Moore-Kilgannon

In defending his $5-billion effort to begin building a more comprehensive approach to child care, Liberal federal Minister of Social Development Ken Dryden pointed out to the House of Commons that Canada’s education system did not develop by putting money into the hands of parents. “It happened because the public decided that what mattered a lot was the development of their children and they wanted to put together a public response to it.”

It’s time to make a public choice, to ensure all children have access to excellent early learning and child care. After all, it’s shaping who we as a society will be tomorrow.

Cheryl Mahaffy is an Edmonton journalist working on a book about female architects, entitled Women Building Alberta.


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