Despite the private sector’s strong lobby, the government is also targeting non-profit centres for its 28,000-space expansion. And last month, Quebec announced plans for a central waiting list. It’s meant to allow all families to access the system more easily, and help officials react more rapidly when new spots are required.
Even Sweden took time
Still, the sustainability of Quebec’s $7 miracle remains in question – especially as the province struggles with a heavy debt load and lousy credit rating. Ms. Marois’s government has so far found a way to avoid cutting direct funding to childcare, but that may not be a line the government can hold for the long term.
A rate hike is something experts such as Dr. Fortin believe is long overdue. If supply can’t match demand, and quality is an issue, should a Montreal family earning $200,000 a year get $7-a-day childcare, when there aren’t enough spaces for a lower-income family down the street?
The answer depends, of course, on who is asked that question.
For her part, the premier is in no hurry to change the fee structure. Ms. Marois concedes that it is difficult to point to clear gains in childhood development, but argues that, even after 16 years, it’s too early to measure the system’s performance “because the network is not yet completely developed; we’re in the process of finalizing it.”
She may have a point. Back in the early 1990s – about 20 years after Sweden put its ambitious programs in place – parents were complaining, even publicly protesting, about waiting lists and too-high fees, as well as concerns that kids who needed preschool most weren’t getting spots. It has taken the country more than four decades to perfect its system, and it is still tweaking it today.
Perhaps all Quebec needs is more time, and, an election call notwithstanding, the political clout that comes with having one of the program’s architects in power.
Certainly, for all its flaws, parents don’t want Quebec to turn its back on its pioneering social experiment.
In a survey a decade into the changes, 92 per cent of parents using a subsidized spot were happy with it – and 66 per cent of those who didn’t have a spot wished they did.
“The ball game has changed,” Dr. Fortin says. “The program gets the enthusiastic, near-unanimous political support of users, so that the practical question from now on is how to improve it. Child development is doing very well in other countries that have the same kind of program, so if Quebec’s is wanting, it must be due not to the type of program but to its specifics. So let’s improve these specifics.”
And what should the rest of Canada take away from a program with laudable intentions, popular support – but, so far, uneven benefits?
A childcare system takes patience – and real money – to build. Even with its multibillion-dollar investment, and working moms helping with the bills, Quebec spends only 0.7 per cent of its GDP on childcare, less than the one-per-cent the OECD recommends for a high-end system.
Creating spaces also has be to balanced against quality. And targeting is key: even in a universal system, low-income children need a boost to get to the front of the line for the best spots.
Governments should expect that line to be long. In a country where most families are trapped by a market-based system that charges high fees for poor service, parents are desperate for a fix.