Banging the drum loudly for early learning


As Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne exhumes the corpse of John Maynard Keynes and pivots from belt-tightening to sluice-opening in her bid to jumpstart the nation’s largest provincial economy, fiscal conservatives are already muttering darkly about the consequences.

Now, they say, is the time for more cutting, more trimming, more shaving. Now, they say, is not the time for economic stimulus of any sort, for what governments in a spending mood like to call “strategic investments”. Ontario, insists the editorial board of The Globe and Mail, “does have room to cut.”

Why, wasn’t it just two years ago when Don Drummond, an economist, suggested that Ontario get its fiscal house in order by avoiding a few costly distractions, including full-day kindergarten, “the cost of which,” The Globe says, the good fellow “pegged at $1.5 billion.”

This is, of course, just the sort of false economy that deficit hawks and their ideologically right-wing fellow travellers love to embrace. And it’s one reason why Canada does not maintain a universally accessible, structured system of early childhood education, integrated into public schools nationwide.

Nope. As parents and grandparents, our political leaders assure, we know best. About everything. We are the bosses of our home lives, the masters of the little blighters we bring into the world. You can keep you nanny state. Just send me my Child Tax Benefit and stay out of my way.

Fortunately, this partisan pabulum doesn’t fortify everyone whose opinions count on subjects economic. It doesn’t, for example, move Craig Alexander, senior vice-president of TD Bank Group.

In a paper, penned and dated October 25, the economist states that “more access to affordable and high quality pre-school education could help to boost literacy and numeracy skills and would help to reduce income inequality in the long run.”

Specifically, he notes, “Investing more in children would help to address Canada’s essential skills challenge. Evidence from an international benchmark study on literacy showed that 5-in-10 Canadians have literacy skills below the desired level for a modern knowledge based economy, while 6-in-10 have below desired numeracy skills. Canada’s performance in the 2012 survey was weaker than in the prior surveys in 2003 and 1994. And, Canadian youths scored lower than the average of youths in other industrialized economies.”

What’s more, “Raising investment in early childhood education would bring long-term benefits. Most studies show that a one dollar investment reaps a long-term return of 1.5-to-3 dollars, and the return on investment for children from low income households can be in the double digits.”

The obvious question is: What are we waiting for?

Erecting a national system of early childhood education might cost as much as $4 billion. But that’s a bargain given the savings promised through lower incidence of poverty, joblessness and crime and higher rates of entrepreneurship, innovation and productivity.

As Mr. Alexander points out, “Businesses strive to balance short-term priorities with their long-term strategies. The same is true for policymakers. Governments . . .can’t lose sight of the need to develop the most skilled labour force of the future. And, the future is our children. This calls for much more investment in high equality early childhood education and better access for such services for low and middle income Canadians.”

In fact, a recent precedent on the kindergarten front supports the broader argument.

“When looking at the evidence,” writes Charles Pascal (a professor at the University of Toronto, and former early learning adviser to the Premier of Ontario) in a recent piece for The Toronto Star, “the number of children with risk factors who have had two years of full-day kindergarten has dropped from 27 per cent to 20 per cent. Even after one year of Ontario’s world-class play-based learning program led by our highly competent early learning educators, risk in the area of language and cognitive development has plummeted a stunning 75 per cent.”

These aren’t mere conjectures; they are tangible results. And they should be enough to convince even the most uncompromising austerity devotee in our midst.

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