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Canada Opponents voice concerns about Quebec’s plan for provincewide junior kindergarten

A turf war is brewing in Quebec over a plan to make four-year-old kindergarten universally available, pitting Premier François Legault’s government against teachers’ unions, school boards and the province’s public early-education daycare system.

Opponents of the plan have started to mobilize just days after the province introduced legislation Thursday that would make junior kindergarten universally available but not compulsory for about 82,000 four-year-olds.

Quebec would follow in the steps of Ontario, which completed introduction of a full-day junior and senior kindergarten program about five years ago. A major difference between the two provinces is that Quebec has a network of heavily subsidized early-education centres (known in Quebec as centres de la petite enfance, or CPEs) that provide many services of a junior kindergarten with smaller class sizes.

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“Instead of copying Ontario, I would prefer if we continued to be a world leader in an area where we have expertise,” said Geneviève Bélisle, executive director of the Quebec association of CPEs. “The government’s project is not realistic, but we can help them meet their objectives.”

Two other groups representing CPEs and their educators held a news conference Sunday backed by the province’s main opposition parties to show a united opposition to the plan. Francine Lessard, head of the Quebec council of CPEs, said the government will spend hundreds of millions of dollars expanding schools instead of improving access and services at CPEs. “We already do the kind of screening the government wants, at a much younger age. We could do more,” she said.

School boards, along with teachers’ associations and unions, have complained they are already short on space and teachers without the additional workload.

Mr. Legault faced muted opposition in last fall’s election campaign when he said his most important promise was to expand kindergarten. But polls have shown the CPE system is more popular among parents than junior kindergarten – even if CPEs only have room for about 20 per cent of four-year-olds now.

The government says junior kindergarten will cost $400-million to $700-million when fully implemented. This year it will add 250 new classes on top of the 394 in place. About 4,800 classes would be required to accommodate all of Quebec’s four-year-olds with an average class size of 17 (compared with 10 in a CPE). Unlike the daycares, which charge $8.25 a day (a current means test is being phased out), kindergarten would be free. Quebec spends $2.5-billion a year subsidizing daycare for 233,000 children from six months to five-years-old.

Mr. Legault has said the goal of junior kindergarten is to reach children whose parents can’t afford or don’t need subsidized daycare. His broader aim is to boost the province’s graduation rate, which perennially lags behind the national average.

“I have a hard time understanding how anyone can be against the idea of adding services and only want daycares,” Mr. Legault said in announcing the plan Thursday. “I’m going to fight for this. I’m going to be stubborn.”

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Ms. Bélisle said her CPE association (which was not part of Sunday’s event) is not dead set against the expansion of junior kindergarten, but the government should have consulted with experts, educators and parents to come up with the best complementary system instead of acting on the campaign province in the first three months of its mandate.

She suspects the government’s long-term goal is to phase out four-year-old CPEs to save money. Mr. Legault has said that is not the plan.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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