In Canada, all children are being left behind

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On almost every issue of significance to Canadian society, the federal Conservatives and NDP could not stand further apart. But on child care, in at least one important respect, they march in lockstep together: Both parties dramatically miss the point.

Early childhood education should, first and foremost, be about children – their welfare, their development, their opportunities to become happy, engaged, enthusiastic learners, thinkers and, eventually citizens.

So what, pray tell, does the Harper government’s determination to line parental pockets with a few more ducats every year under its Universal Child Care Benefit have to do kid-centred early childhood education?

On the other side of the ideological coin, what does the New Democrats’ proposal to subsidize as many as a million new daycare spaces across the country have to do with preparing the next generation of leaders, educators, professionals and skilled workers?

Granted, the NDP scheme at least attempts to acknowledge that, nowadays, families need two working spouses to make ends meet.

In contrast, the Tory concept seems tethered to weirdly antiquated notions about motherhood; its new $160-per-month, per-child under six, program is an undiluted attempt to resurrect the conviction that women with kids do actually belong in their homes until such time as they can make their great escapes back into the working world (yeah, after 10 or 12 years, good luck with that, ladies).

Still, each model, in its own way, utterly ignores the compelling bang for the billions of bucks each purports to spend, simply because neither focuses on kids, but rather on the adult parents, whose votes will fuel the next great democratic lottery come the autumn of 2015.

To this audience, Mr. Harper likes to say things like: “We have always been clear that money and support to help families raise children should not go into more bureaucracy. It should go to the real experts on child care. That’s mom and dad, and that is what we are doing.”

Well, no, actually, mom and dad are not always, or even usually, the “real experts on child care”. (My wife and I certainly weren’t when we had our two kids in the early 1980s).

Then again, neither are, necessarily, the legions of lightly trained, underpaid, overburdened daycare workers slogging away in frequently poor conditions from coast to glimmering coast in this country.

The real experts are those who have studied the science, research, policy and practice of early childhood development.

They are those who apply all of this where it matters – in the classroom, where kids benefit from structured play, early and often, where kids benefit from the certainty that what they learn in pre-school will carry them seamlessly into primary education systems.

And, in fact, this model works in Canada.

Look to Quebec, for one.

Just one decade after that province introduced a universal early childhood education system, integrated into higher grades, it went from the bottom to the top on many social indicators.

From having Canada’s lowest female labour participation rate, it now has the highest. Where Quebec women were once less likely to attend post-secondary education than their counterparts in the rest of Canada, today they dominate. Meanwhile, student scores on standardized tests have gone from below the Canadian average to above.

The research also shows that Quebec fathers are more involved in child-raising than ever before. Now, 82 per cent of fathers in that province take paid leave after the births of their kids, compared to just 12 per cent in the rest of Canada.

Moreover, childhood programs that allow mothers to work have slashed Quebec’s child poverty rates by 50 per cent.

I have lifted all of this, shamelessly and almost verbatim from the Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, because it is the gold standard of research on this subject in this country.

Here’s another:

“Based on earlier studies, we estimate that in 2008 universal access to low-fee childcare in Quebec induced nearly 70,000 more mothers to hold jobs than if no such program had existed – and increase of 3.8 per cent in women employment,” Montreal economist Pierre Fortin wrote in 2012. “By our calculation, Quebec’s domestic income was higher by about 1.7 per cent, or $5 billion, as a result.”

All of which should persuade any thinking person that public policy on child care should be about the child – not the venal, cynical intentions of political operatives looking to the next election, the next opportunity to lock in votes at the expense of real socio-economic progress.

In this respect, the lockstep march of the federal Conservatives and NDP is one step forward and one step backwards – which is to say standing still and, therefore, nowhere.

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