The government of Alberta recently announced it will fund up to 18 early learning and child-care centres across the province. Its stated goal is to create new spaces that are both affordable and high quality. The announcement is a strong first step toward building a comprehensive, affordable, high-quality system available to all Albertans.
The government’s initiative will provide funding support to new or existing licensed non-profit care providers in Alberta. The qualification that the grants go only to non-profit operations is important. For-profit child-care operations have been growing rapidly and are focused on one goal above all else: profits for the owners and shareholders.
As in other sectors of the public service, seniors’ care being one example, corporations are more than happy to receive government funding to provide a service as long as they can pocket a healthy share of the money to keep for themselves. Limiting the eligibility for this new program to non-profit organizations ensures that will not happen, and that more money will be spent on direct care and child development.
Alberta has also had a serious problem with affordable early learning and child-care spaces. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, our province’s major cities have some of the highest fees for care in the country. Median rates of per-child preschool care costs last year were $800 per month in Edmonton and $910 per month in Calgary, and care for toddlers and infants is even higher. While Alberta’s subsidy system makes care more affordable for low-income families, the fees for quality care are still significant and often impossible to afford. Costs force many parents to find lower quality care, including unlicensed day homes that offer limited child development opportunities and can even be dangerous.
The government’s program will cap fees at $25 per day, including care for children with exceptionalities, which is significant when many families were paying up to $39 per day. For families receiving subsidies, the fee cap will ensure that care is affordable.
Beyond affordability, the program will fill other gaps in our current system, including care for children with exceptionalities and availability of care outside of typical daycare hours to help meet the needs of those with different work schedules.
However, quality of care still needs to be addressed. The program will make greater use of Alberta’s early learning and child-care curriculum framework, which is an excellent yet underused, made-in-Alberta resource, but more attention to quality is needed.
As in education, quality in early learning and child care depends primarily on the workforce. Large numbers of the frontline workers are trained to the level of child development assistant, which requires only a 45-hour course. We need to raise the bar on the amount of training required for workers, but that also means raising the bar for wages, which are some of the lowest of any occupation. These workers are a key part of helping Alberta’s children develop in their formative years, so it is vitally important that we make the investments necessary to ensure they are supported.
To look at the big picture of Alberta’s early learning and child-care system is to realize that our existing patchwork of care providers is not a system at all. The government’s announcement is a first step in the direction of a cohesive system, but it is still on a relatively small scale and lacks action on workforce development.
Both increasing the scale of this program and developing the workforce will require significant investment of public dollars, and that means the province needs to raise significantly more tax revenue than it does now. The tax systems of other Canadian provinces would raise between $7.5 billion and $19.4 billion of additional revenue if adopted in Alberta.
The government deserves kudos for taking the first step to build an early learning and child-care system for our province at a time when revenues are so short. However, more significant improvements will happen only after Albertans decide how we will raise the revenue to pay for them. Indeed, that challenge is one currently faced by all public services, including education, and we need all political parties to start talking in detail about solutions.
This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.