The next Ontario election campaign doesn't officially begin until Labour Day 2011, but Premier Dalton McGuinty got the ball rolling a full year early Tuesday by throwing down the gauntlet over all-day kindergarten.
Mr. McGuinty raised the election issue after joining students at Mount Joy Public School in Markham, Ont., for the first day of classes, and to mark the beginning of the all-day kindergarten program in 600 Ontario schools - although not at Mount Joy.
"It's not too soon for us to consider the choice we're going to have next October," said Mr. McGuinty.
"Ontarians will have a very clear choice when it comes to the future of publicly funded education: they can continue to make progress, whether it's test scores or graduation rates or full-day kindergarten, or they can put a stop to that and they can turn the clock back."
The all-day kindergarten program, which will expand to 800 schools next year, will cost the province $1.5-billion a year when it's fully implemented in all 4,000 elementary schools by 2015.
Mr. McGuinty's assertion that voting Liberal will help protect gains in public education is "a bunch of nonsense," said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
"Voting for Dalton McGuinty means higher taxes, more runaway spending while Liberal insiders get rich, and we have not seen the improvements in classroom testing scores," said Mr. Hudak.
However, the Opposition leader wouldn't say if a Conservative government would scrap all-day kindergarten, forcing parents back into more expensive, private day care for their children, or keep expanding the program as the Liberals plan.
There will be 50,000 kids in all-day kindergarten in 800 schools next fall, and a Conservative government would have to deal with that reality and spend its first year evaluating the success of the program, said Mr. Hudak.
"I expect because of the expensive and messy implementation, we'll be fixing this program and making sure dollars go into frontline education as opposed to the enormous cost of Dalton McGuinty's plan," he said.
"If a mom or dad feels their child is best served by a half-day (of kindergarten) they should be given that option."
Mr. Hudak said parents are now forced to either enroll their child in full-day kindergarten if it's offered at their school or drive their children to another school that still offers a half-day program, but the government points out kindergarten is optional for everyone.
Mr. McGuinty warned voters would jeopardize the future of the new all-day learning program if they elect a Conservative government.
"They think full-day kindergarten is an unnecessary frill," he said.
"I disagree fundamentally."
The self-described "education premier" said the Liberals had brought eight years of labour peace to Ontario schools after years of repeated teachers' strikes and lockouts under the Tories.
Mr. McGuinty also defended his emphasis on early education and his decision to implement such an expensive program when the province is facing a budget deficit of almost $20-billion.
"(U.S. President Barack) Obama is fond of saying those that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow," said Mr. McGuinty.
"Well we are out-teaching them today."
Mr. Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, will be among those in attendance next week when Mr. McGuinty hosts a two-day seminar in Toronto called Building Blocks for Education. Participants will come from many countries including Russia, France, Australia and Britain.