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A women covers her face as she walks past a child care centre in Toronto on April 10, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Move over, Quebec. Want to build a system of early learning and child care? Start in Ontario.

Ontario?! The province that couldn’t figure out how to keep its schools safe and open and whose biggest cities lost between 30 per cent and 60 per cent of their child-care capacity during the pandemic?

Surprise! No jurisdiction in Canada is better equipped to create a system of high-quality, accessible early learning and child care; a system that can reduce inequalities in a way comparable to schools and health care. Ontario already provides early learning to a quarter-million – 90 per cent – of four- and five-year-olds in its kindergarten classrooms and requires schools to provide before- and after-school care where parents want it. More than half the province´s schools already have child care, and a billion-dollar capital program is under way to add more. Building on your existing public assets is the secret sauce in bringing high-quality early learning and child care to a neighbourhood near you. Ontario leads that parade.

So why isn’t Ontario taking further advantage of $11-billion in new support from the federal government to win the race to the top and address needs?

The inaction is puzzling. The headline political promise in every federal-provincial deal is to reduce parent fees by 50 per cent within 18 months, to an average of $10 a day by 2026. That has to be attractive in a province where child-care fees are the highest in the country, especially for a government heading to the polls next year.

Ottawa’s offer is fiscally irresistible, too. The focus on affordability is modelled on Quebec’s 25-year demonstration that low-cost child-care literally pays for itself through the extra taxes generated by increasing the participation of women in the labour force. It’s a win-win for parents and governments.

The underreported lesson from Quebec, however, reveals that more affordability without factoring in quality and equity means affluent parents simply pay less for the good care they already have, leaving those who arguably needed more with no, or poor, care: low-income, racialized and Indigenous families, recent immigrants, rural and remote communities, shift workers and children with special needs. By focusing on lowering fees, Quebec didn’t build a system; it subsidized a market to get more women into paid work.

Without playing down the importance of that achievement, there is a half-century of evidence showing the highest returns on public investments come from getting quality service to the families who will benefit most. Good child care doesn’t result from more demand alone. It requires public management and planning.

The best exemplar for this exists in Ontario. Where other provinces need to create new infrastructure to oversee expansion and fee reduction, Queen’s Park has long mandated regional governments to manage all early years’ services.

Universal kindergarten means a significant chunk of the “system” is already publicly managed. Parents trust their schools and have close relationships with their children’s educators, who are trained in how to make learning fun.

Ontario alone has a legislated professional body, the College of Early Childhood Educators – something other provinces are trying to develop to support an expanding work force. In addition, Ontario’s network of 24 community colleges has been dedicated to adding seats and integrating culturally relevant and anti-racist care for years.

Finally, Ontario starts out with the lowest share of for-profit care compared with the other big provinces (B.C., Quebec and Alberta). Since federal funding prioritizes expansion through non-profit and public providers, Ontario has a bigger base to grow from and meet needs more quickly.

Where Ontario fails is not having enough regulated child care – educators aren’t paid enough, and parents pay too much. All these negatives can be offset with the funding Ottawa has on offer. Given that a federal deal welcomes, but does not require, additional provincial spending, it’s perplexing that Ontario is not jumping to restore the capacity that was lost during the pandemic, improve working conditions to avoid predictable labour shortages and deliver big financial relief to parents.

Almost every jurisdiction is talking child care with Ottawa. Each has its own emphasis: more non-profit spaces in British Columbia, universal preschool for three-year-olds in Nova Scotia, junior kindergarten in Newfoundland. Even Alberta is negotiating. And despite the narrative of world-class child-care policies in Quebec, it too wants what Ontario has.

Ontario is eager to reopen. Reducing bottlenecks to get more people to work in the largest job market in the country requires more spending on early learning and child care, and there’s money for the taking.

So how come so mum, Mr. Premier? If a deal is inked soon, it could be paying dividends just in time for the next provincial election. Go on. Take the cash – and the glory!

Armine Yalnizyan is an economist and the Atkinson fellow on the future of workers.

Kerry McCuaig is a fellow in early childhood policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

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