Private commodity or public good?

Early childhood education and care

Why is this important? What is the history of the issue?

For more than 30 years, the question “who should own child care?” has been an important issue in the Canadian early childhood field. Perhaps the first time it arose was in the mid-1970s when a lobbying effort by a large US child care corporation motivated the Ontario government to propose reducing staff:child ratio requirements.

Baby and boy playing with blocksA considerable advocacy effort turned back the proposed policy changes – called the “Birch proposals”.

Since the Birch proposals were debated in the 1970s, Canada’s regulated child care has remained almost entirely private with very little publicly-delivered child care. Most child care -- 80% --is not-for-profit with considerable variation by province/territory. Several provinces and territories have almost 100% non-profit provision while several others are primarily for-profit. Canadian child care chains have proliferated in the last few years but no Canadian child care business has “gone corporate” -- traded publicly on the stock exchange.

Whether child care is for-profit or non-profit matters for children. In the past two decades, research that documents differences between the sectors in quality, staff training, wages, morale, continuity, compliance with regulations, use of funds and other indicators of quality has been accumulating.

While the issue of for-profit child care has always been part of the Canadian child care debate, in 2007 it was thrown into sharp focus when a multi-billion dollar Australian child care conglomerate moved in intending to acquire centres in Canada as they had in the UK, the US, New Zealand. Since then, the focus has been on “big-box” child care. However, it has become apparent that the issue is not only conglomerates vs.“mom and pops” but a more fundamental one about whether early childhood education and care should be a product (like shoes, chocolate or cars) to be marketed to young children or parents as customers or should it be a public good like elementary education, guaranteeing access as a right and fundamental to how the society organizes itself.

How should public dollars be used, and how should they be delivered? And is the market an effective — and appropriate — way to deliver services to children?

 

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