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Painting a cardboard minivan are from left Azka Kashif,6; Habiba Abou Amer, 6 and Kayla Agung 6, during their full day kindergarten class at Floradale Public School in Mississauga, Ont. on April 8 2014.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's rollout of full-day kindergarten is part of a growing movement to make universal early learning the cornerstone of broader education platforms, with supporters pointing to studies that show investments in childhood can pay off in adulthood through higher salaries, lowered health-care costs and reduced rates of imprisonment.

In Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador is the latest jurisdiction that will offer full-day senior kindergarten in the fall of 2016. For families, the decreased stress of finding child care and increased family income as two parents are able to work full-time, translate into widespread support for spending on early learning. Not all researchers champion universal full-day kindergarten, however, arguing the money would be better focused on at-risk children. It is this group that shows the highest gains from full-day kindergarten.

Governments "believe that expenditures in early childhood programs will pay large dividends in children's later achievement, and these programs are very popular with parents," said Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy in Washington. "The first premise is very likely wrong… The second premise interacts with the first – both politicians and parents believe that early centre-based education programs will produce long-lasting benefits for children. The resulting combination of do-good-and-get-votes has tremendous appeal to politicians."

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Mr. Whitehurst argues that the evidence is scant that early learning raises later academic achievement or social and emotional skills for all students. He would replace a universal program with policies that include a variety of programs to especially help those with limited financial resources to access good child care, and "explicit planned efforts by governments to learn from experience."

Don Drummond, an economist who recommended the Ontario Liberals scrap full-day kindergarten to deal with the province's deficit, said politicians rarely undertake policies where the payoff is not within their elected term. So why break the golden rule in this instance? "They must perceive a payoff, and the payoff has to be happy parents," said Mr. Drummond, a Matthews fellow on global public policy at Queen's University.

Mr. Drummond also prefers exploring a more targeted approach to early learning for vulnerable children. "My instincts tell me it would work quite well," he said. "If you are getting down to benefit-cost ratios, and ultimately everything in public policy and taking taxpayers money has to or should be, we know that's where the payoff comes."

Politicians say they have a broader mandate. When elected last year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made it his first priority to secure funds – about $300-million – to offer free and universal all-day prekindergarten classes to all four-year-olds in the city.

Advocates for universal early childhood education also say programs that are targeted at disadvantaged children tend to be underfunded and can have worse outcomes than those that include children from all social groups. Programs "for poor people become poor programs," said an Ontario Early Years study on the benefits of full-day kindergarten. The same report recognized there are political dividends to be reaped by introducing early learning. A legislature that took up the concerns of younger voters with families by providing "affordable, educational care for their children," it stated, could increase voter turnout among this demographic.

Not all parents, however, clamour to enroll their children. Nancy Forde, who lives in Waterloo, Ont., opted to pay the $876 in monthly daycare fees rather than put her son in junior full-day kindergarten in the past academic year. (Ontario's full-day learning program incorporates two years of a revamped play-based curriculum for junior and senior kindergarten). He enjoyed the occasional nap at daycare, and she was reluctant to put him in a crowded kindergarten class that sometimes averages about 30 kids.

Ms. Forde believes most children would still thrive in a half-day program. "From all I've read, I think kids are going to explore and learn the things that they need to at that stage in half-day," she said. "I really don't think it's going to be make them smarter and brighter, and they'll still have the social exposure."

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