NATIONAL

DAYCARE DILEMMA

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR March 31 2008
NATIONAL

DAYCARE DILEMMA

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR March 31 2008

DAYCARE DILEMMA

NATIONAL

Private operators are under attack, despite the shortage of spaces

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR

Many daycare owners complain their industry has never been particularly profitable. But now there’s a growing move to take the profit out of it completely. Private sector daycare is under attack in many parts of the country, with vocal opponents claiming that earning a profit is fundamentally at odds with proper child care. And yet, with an apparent shortage of daycare spaces in this country, for-profit operators argue they’re the ones best able to solve the access problem. So what’s the prioritydaycare spaces or daycare ideology?

The highest-profile assault on commercial daycare is a private member’s bill from NDP MP Olivia Chow that would commit Ottawa to a national daycare plan and deny funding to any new for-profit centre. “Tax dollars should not be going to a company’s bottom line,” says Chow. “We don’t want multinational corporations coming into this country and making money off the backs of our kids.” Her proposal has the support of all three opposition parties and currently sits at the brink of becoming law, but the Harper government is likely to derail it the same way it did a recent private member’s bill on RESPs. A final showdown is set for April 3 in the Commons.

As for Chow’s fear of multinational corporations, she’s referring to Australian firm ABC Learning Centres. Last fall, ABC, the largest child care company in the world with more than 1,000 centres in each of Australia and the U.S., was rumoured to be planning a major assault on Canada. A corporate cousin

called 123 Busy Beavers bought 11 existing daycares in Alberta and earned the immediate wrath of Canadian unions and the NDP, both of whom are eager to see the daycare industry remade as a non-profit, unionized operation coast-to-coast.

And yet panic over an Aussie invasion appears misplaced. The U.S. subprime mortgage crisis hammered ABC, which has extensive real estate holdings through its daycares, and any move north now looks unlikely. “Public daycares don’t get caught gambling their money in subprime mortgages,” says Chow, with some satisfaction. Nonetheless, the continuing spectre of new commercial child care has prompted Martha Friendly, coordinator of the influential Childcare Resource and Research Unit (CRRU) at the University of Toronto, to call for a moratorium on private sector daycare licences in Ontario.

In Quebec, private operators are already at a disadvantage within the province’s heavily subsidized $7-a-day daycare system. Forprofit centres receive $33 per child per day in government funds, while non-profit centres get up to $42. To make up this funding gap, private daycares have traditionally been allowed to charge parents fees for extras such as dance lessons or extended hours. But the Jean Charest government recently challenged the practice, and though private daycares

won a court battle for the right to charge fees, the province has vowed to appeal.

Susan Peebles, who runs Garderie Monchhichi, an 80-space daycare in Montreal, sees the new attack on extra fees as continuing evidence of government animosity. “If the government gets its way, I see private sector daycares being wiped out in the long run,” she says. Given the lengthy waiting lists for the $7-a-day spots, she argues such a strategy will simply reduce access even further.

In fact, given continual complaints that Canada as a whole suffers from a shortage of child care spaces, many in the business see official hostility toward the for-profit sector as counterproductive. This is especially so given both for-profit and non-profit centres face the same government regulations and the same parental scrutiny. “There’s an onslaught against private sector daycare,” reports Kathy Graham, a child care consultant and former CEO of the Association of Daycare Operators of Ontario. “But if we’re really concerned about access to child care, we should be encouraging new entry into our industry, not targeting one group,” she says.

Graham points to Saskatchewan, where the former NDP government entirely eliminated the for-profit daycare sector. That province has the lowest level of child care coverage in the country. “Besides,” she adds, “we know competition breeds excellence.” Such a free-market approach to child care earns a rebuke from the CRRU’s Friendly, however. She argues only non-profit operations can guarantee high-quality care. “The fundamental question is whether child care is a public good or a marketable commodity,” states Friendly.

But even some parents who don’t use daycare centres support the private sector’s right to provide child care. Stay-at-home mom and family issues lobbyist Sara Landriault of Kemptville, Ont., is a vocal proponent of income splitting as a means to support at-home parenting. Yet she’s also spoken out in favour of private sector daycares as an expression of parental choice. “For governments or experts to claim they know what’s best for our kids—whether that’s non-profit daycare or anything else—is an insult to parents everywhere,” she says. “Choice is choice and we should just trust parents to make the best choices for their kids.” M