And research shows that high-quality early education benefits babies of all backgrounds – especially those with learning and behavioural issues that may make it harder to succeed at school.
A system that treats all families the same also gets more political support. It’s “part of what made Quebec’s program so bulletproof,” says Susan Prentice, a childcare researcher at the University of Manitoba.
“The later [Liberal] government who came in and tried to undo it faced this huge wall of public opposition because you just had everybody who used and loved their childcare saying, ‘Touche pas.’
There are downsides, however. While a system that mixes children from different backgrounds can foster social cohesion and help lower-income families avoid the stigma often associated with any program solely geared to “poor kids,” critics of the one-fee-for-all system argue that it means low-income families (as well as parents who choose to stay home) are indirectly subsidizing daycare for their wealthier peers in their taxes.
Quebec has also struggled to address the fact that in its original design the universal system overlooked a universal truth – that better-off and better-educated parents are nothing if not resourceful. In its early years, when spaces were being created at a furious pace, the program relied heavily on neighbourhoods, community groups and workplaces to organize and apply for new registered daycares that would then be publicly funded.
“So places where parents were already politically active, already thinking about children’s development and knew how to work with their neighbours – they knew how to get a childcare centre,” Dr. Jenson says.
Because regulated daycares don’t have official catchment areas like schools, families with means can arrange to have their children driven to locations when spots opened – and also know how to get their names on the right waiting lists.
All of which puts parents with limited cash and connections at a disadvantage.
“You cannot provide a public system in such a way that you ask people to play musical chairs for access,” Dr. Fortin says.
The quality challenge
Even for kids who find a spot, the long-term gains aren’t certain.
Childcare advocates often cite the findings of the famous Perry Preschool Project as evidence of the transformative impact of high-end early education. In the 1960s, a small group of disadvantaged African-American children, then three or four years old, participated in an intensive program in Michigan that was taught by university-educated public-school teachers and included weekly home visits. Researchers followed them into adulthood: Compared with a control group of peers, they were more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to have a criminal record as adults and more likely to have a job when they turned 40.
A universal system, as high-performing Scandinavian nations demonstrate, may also achieve good results – but, without specific interventions for children who need extra help, researchers say, it cannot expect to match those of the Perry experiment.
It’s too soon to say what Quebec’s program can do. Its Grade 11 standardized test scores, for example, includes results only for students who “graduated” from the childcare program’s first two years. Their class did better, but to credit their preschool experience for the gain would be too much of a leap. After all, a lot happens to children once they leave daycare, both at school and at home, and prominent U.S. studies have found that, without ongoing support, some learning gains among low-income kids disappear early in grade school.
And assessing the impact of childcare is not a simple matter of test-taking. Children’s response differs based on how early they enter childcare, how much of the day they spend there, the stimulation they receive at home and the education level of their parents, especially their mothers.
Queen’s University economist Steven Lehrer has a special interest in education, and studies data gathered for the National Longitudinal Survey of Canadian Youth and Children which, until it was cancelled last year, had tracked a broad range of factors, including social development and vocabulary scores, in young children since 1994.