On July 15, 2020, Public Interest Alberta submitted the following backgrounder and recommendations to the provincial government as they undertake their review of the Child Care Licensing Act and Regulation. The recommendations were formulated in collaboration with the policy experts and sector workers who sit on our Child Care and Early Learning Task Force.
Public Interest Alberta’s submission for the review of Alberta’s Child Care Licensing Act and Regulation
In 2019, Albertans elected a government that did not mention child care in its platform once, yet the government has made some very significant changes in the sector, all of which have had negative impacts. The result has been care that is lower quality, more expensive for families, and more difficult to access. The mandated review of the Child Care Licensing Act and Regulation is an opportunity to reverse those trends and to move toward a system of child care and early learning that is based on the principles of affordability, accessibility, and high quality for all families who need it.
The Early Learning and Child Care pilot program, colloquially known as the $25-a-day child care program, was a small, but necessary step the previous government took towards building a truly accessible and universal high-quality system. The current provincial government has not renewed the funding for the pilot program.
Within the current government’s first year in office, the Benefit Contribution Grant and Staff Attraction Incentive were also ended, and quality standards tied to accreditation were eliminated. Taken together, these changes have resulted in significantly less investment of government funding in the child care sector, as well as a lowering of standards in the sector. Clearly, these directions have hurt child care professionals, Alberta families who rely on child care, and children whose development, in part, relies on access to quality care.
Robust public investment from all levels of government in early learning and child care is a sound investment into Alberta’s economy, its future citizens, and is simply the right thing to do.
Reducing the financial barrier to child care would be a boon to our province’s economy. Median monthly fees for infants in Edmonton and Calgary are between $1,075 and $1,300 per child. As a result, many parents–usually mothers–are forced to stay home even if they have the desire, education, and experience to participate in the workforce. Affordable child care is a key area of investment for lifting the nearly 1 in 6 Alberta children who live below the poverty line into a better socioeconomic position. This would enable full workforce participation for parents, and lower child care fees–which can represent a significant proportion of parental income–can allow for parents to spend more on other essentials such as nutritious food and adequate housing.
Increasing the quality of the early learning and child care system through workforce investment means that children would be exposed to learning opportunities which foster healthy brain development and emotional health during the critical first five years of children’s lives. Besides the obvious goal of giving all children access to opportunities to develop their full potential, the societal benefits of this support would be enormous. From increased academic achievement, to decreased interactions with the criminal justice system, to finding sustainable employment, this intervention would mean that Alberta is creating healthier citizens of the future.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic crisis, we have seen beyond a shadow of a doubt how vital child care is to our society. However, we have a long way to go before we have a child care and early learning system which truly works for everyone. It is well beyond the time for all levels of government to build on the lessons we have learned through this current crisis and transform child care across the country into what it really is – a public good.
Public Interest Alberta is a progressive non-partisan non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and strengthening our public services to advance the public interest. Child care and early learning is one of our seven core action areas. In consultation with the early learning and child care policy experts and workers in the field who constitute our Child Care and Early Learning Task Force, we have developed three key priorities for strengthening and expanding the child care sector so that every Albertan family can access the high quality and accessible child care they need and deserve. These priority areas should be the government’s main areas of focus in its review of the Child Care Licensing Act and Regulation.
Build on the lessons learned from the Early Learning and Child Care Centres pilot program
Although the Early Learning and Child Care Centres pilot program only operated in 122 non-profit centres, it was a resounding success. Through our biennial child care operator survey, Public Interest Alberta found that centres which received this public funding were more likely to care for infants, more likely to care and provide support and intervention for children with complex needs and disabilities, and were far more affordable for families, sometimes saving them thousands of dollars on their child care expenses. Furthermore, the wage top-up and expansion of opportunities for professional development for child care professionals resulted in increased use of Alberta’s curriculum framework, as well as greater staff retention.
Although the current government has decided not to renew funding to these centres, the lessons learned from the program should be used to chart a path forward for the sector. The current review should be approached as a significant opportunity to do that.
Support the Professionalization of Early Childhood Educators
Affordability is only one component of a system that truly works. This is why direct-to-parent subsidies are the wrong policy direction to pursue; they can address affordability but miss the opportunities for funding to address other issues simultaneously.
For society to reap the full benefits of investment into child care and early learning, we must ensure that the care and education is also high quality. This high-quality care must be supported by a highly educated workforce who are well-compensated for their work delivering the educational opportunities appropriate for children and to maximize the positive experiences leading to healthy early childhood development. Therefore, strengthening the requirements for early childhood educators by phasing in a requirement for at least a two-year diploma in the field, alongside ongoing, funded professional development for everyone working in the sector would yield the best return on investment.
There also needs to be a robust plan to more broadly implement Alberta’s Early Learning and Care Curriculum Framework, known as Flight. Significant investment is needed in continuing education to ensure all early childhood professionals are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to use the framework in a way that fully supports healthy development for children.
Alongside increases in educational requirements, early childhood educators require higher wages to increase worker retention and to reduce staff turnover and burn out. New public subsidies from government are needed to accomplish this. Furthermore, the workers in this sector are disproportionately women. Investing in proper compensation for these workers is a step towards shrinking the significant gender pay gap in our province.
Caring and educating children in this early stage of life is an absolutely critical job with wide-ranging positive ramifications, and our governments should be doing everything in their power to ensure we have a well-educated and well-compensated workforce which sees the sector as worthy of and feasible for a lifelong career.
Invest in True Accessibility
Finally, there is more to accessibility than affordability for families. It is important that spaces are available in our child care and early learning centres infants and children with complex needs. Furthermore, many of Alberta’s working parents are employed in sectors which require shift work and non-traditional working hours. Options such as alternative hours are necessary to support these parents and their children. Additionally, all new schools and other publicly-owned facilities should incorporate space for early childhood and after-school care programs into their design. Underutilized facilities and schools should always be considered as potential child care centre sites if there is an unmet need in the community.
Alberta’s economy was already reeling from a combination of the low price of oil, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the significant cuts made by the provincial government in several other areas, all of which have led to significant job losses across the province. One of the things made clear by the COVID-19 pandemic is how essential child care is to the province’s economy.
The government’s approach to reviewing the Child Care Licensing Act and Regulation must recognize all of these factors, and must focus on making changes that would increase the affordability, accessibility, and quality of care.