Canada is a federation, and the provinces are the policy laboratories of our federation. They have room – a lot of room – to innovate in areas under their jurisdiction. Every day over the past week, this newspaper has looked at a nation's worth of experiments in one of those key areas: child care.
There are real differences in policy choices across the provinces, representing a genuine division of opinion among policy-makers, political parties, voters and parents. The debate is real, and it is healthy. What would the "best" child-care system be? And is there even one answer?
Our series devoted a lot of attention to the most ambitious of those provincial experiments: Quebec's $7-a-day, public daycare. Though more than a decade old, it remains the model for advocates of public, taxpayer-supported, universal child care. It's cheap for parents, but it carries a $2.2-billion-a-year cost for government and taxpayers. As a universal program, it subsidizes low-cost daycare for everyone: those needing a financial leg up, and the well-off who don't. It favours public care over private arrangements. And it offers a financial incentive to working parents vs. those who stay at home. For some, these are selling points; for others, they are criticisms.
For Prince Edward Island, the Quebec model is an inspiration. But Canada's smallest province isn't building anything close to an exact replica. PEI recently moved kindergarten from the private-sector daycare system into the public school system, and at the same time took steps to bolster its extensive, and largely privately operated, network of pre-kindergarten daycares. The cost to PEI taxpayers of the daycare network is, relatively speaking, a fraction of the cost being carried by Quebec's taxpayers.
Then there's the most prominent federal initiative. The Conservative government received no kudos from daycare advocates when it introduced the Universal Child Care Benefit in 2006. It gives $1,200 a year to the parent of a child under the age of 6. The design of the UCCB is animated by an idea that Conservatives and conservatives tend to favour: the idea of choice. The policy is neutral on parental choices about how to care for pre-school children. The money is paid regardless of whether a parent is working or remains at home. And parents can spend the money how they see fit: on child-care costs associated with working full-time – or to make up some of the income that will be forgone if a parent stays at home, or moves to working part time. For some, these aspects of the federal program are selling points. For others, they are criticisms.
The federal child benefit isn't cheap, and daycare advocates are right to ask for evidence of its impact, and its cost-effectiveness. Is the UCCB making a difference? Is it money well spent? Does it make a difference for parents who want to leave the work force for a time? Is the money enough to matter to parents who choose daycare – whose costs outside of Quebec range from a few hundred dollars a month to well over $1,000? These are reasonable questions to ask of any program.
Everyone wants to create policies that will "support parents." Who could be against that? But to use the phrase is to beg the question. What is the best support? Do parents want policies that will help them stay home with their kids? Or help them to stay in the labour force? The answer appears to be in some cases one, in some cases the other, and over the course of a child's early years, a bit of both.
Canada's parental-leave rules, relatively generous compared with our neighbour to the south, are built around the assumption that many parents want to temporarily leave the work force after the birth of a child. At the same time, however, there is a growing recognition that, as a pre-school child ages, staying out of the labour force may not always be desired by parents, and even if it is desired, it's just not financially possible.
The choices that Canadian parents make do not always reside in neat, separate silos: Stay-at-home parent or in the work force? Day care or private and family care? Working part-time vs. working full-time? These are not easy choices, nor are they entirely binary. Many parents will, at different times over the course of a child's pre-kindergarten years, say "yes" to all of the above. Policies have to be flexible and various enough to recognize that.
The good news is that governments – and voters – have a host of options to consider. The provincial laboratories continue to innovate. Voters can watch what is going on next door – and so can enterprising politicians. Quebec informed what PEI is doing, and as the results of PEI's novel approach come in, they will be studied across the rest of the country. Child care can't be one-size-fits-all-families, and neither can Canadian child-care policy. Let the experiments continue.