More than half of Canadian families with children under the age of four use some form of childcare. But of the country's 10 provinces and three territories, Quebec is the only province to offer universal, government-subsidized daycare for children aged four and under with a fixed cost between $7.30 and $20 per day (compared to as much as $90 per day elsewhere).
Since the program started in 1997, it has been the envy of parents across the country, but in reality, it's not as good as it sounds. And here's why:
1. There simply aren't enough spots. Naturally, demand for child care increased when the program was introduced, as even those who had alternate child care arrangements in place, opted in.
In an effort to meet the high demand, the province expanded regulated spots beyond its publicly funded, not-for-profit centres, to both for-profit, private daycares and to some home-based facilities. This tripled the number of regulated spots, but it’s still not enough. As a result, many parents continue to rely on expensive private daycares or to delay their return to work altogether.
2. The wait lists are long and confusing. Some of the regulated spots are at facilities that adhere to a centralized wait list, while others do not. So parents have to do a lot of leg work to determine which centres subscribe to that centralized list, and which do not. And then they have to get their kids on each individual list.
In an attempt to alleviate the confusion, the provincial government plans to have one, official centralized wait list in place by December of this year. Once your kid is on the desired wait list/s, you wait for a spot to open up -- and the key word is, "wait." It isn’t difficult to find parents who have been waiting two years for a subsidized spot.
3. Quality is suffering. The results from a 2005 study, show that the overwhelming majority of regulated daycares in the Quebec (61 per cent), received a quality rating of "minimal," while 12 per cent were "poor," and only 27 per cent were "good."
“Overall, the results of our evaluation show that the majority of child care settings attended by the QLSCD [Québec Longitudinal Study of Child Development] children meet the basic criteria for quality — that is, they ensure the children’s health and safety — but their educational component is minimal,” the researchers state in their findings. “Almost one setting in eight fails to meet the minimum standards, while one in four provides good, very good or excellent service.”
It doesn’t help that Quebec child care workers are outnumbered by their tiny charges at a ratio of 11 to one -- the lowest caregiver to kids ratio in Canada, according to a 2012 study entitled “Comparing Child Care Policy in the Canadian Provinces.” The Canadian Paediatrics Society recommends a maximum of eight children per care worker for three and four year olds. And that ratio narrows with younger children.
The study also shows that while Quebec's child care professionals fall squarely in the middle when comparing their education to those in the rest of the country, only 43 per cent have their Early Childhood Education certification.
So how well are Quebec’s children prepared for school? According to a study by Université du Québec à Montréal economists, Quebec four and five-year-olds had lower scores on a "school readiness" test than their counterparts in the rest of the country.
4. Spots don’t necessarily go to families who need it the most. Because the very nature of universal childcare means that everyone is eligible, wealthier families inevitably occupy spots that could go to families in desperate need of affordable daycare. In fact, families with the highest annual incomes in the province are twice as likely to have a child enrolled in the universal program as compared to families earning the lowest incomes.
The imbalance can be traced back to the early days of the initiative when the province relied on individual groups to apply for registered daycares in their neighbourhoods and workplaces. The groups who were able to effectively mobilize were educated and had more resources at their disposal.
In response to this problem, the province started targeting daycare costs to income this past January, which saw the fee increase across a sliding scale from $7.30 up to $20 per day for those families with the highest incomes.
5. It is expensive. While the up-front cost of universal daycare in Quebec is low, envious parents should remember that Quebec families pay one of the highest income tax rates -- both in Canada and in North America at large -- which eats up nearly half of their household income on average.
Deficit spending on social programs -- universal daycare included -- has also saddled the province with a staggering debt in the hundreds of billions, or $68,750 per tax payer.
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