TORONTO — Ontario's Liberal government says it plans to offer free child care for thousands of preschoolers across the province starting in 2020, a promise that comes as it faces a looming spring election.
Premier Kathleen Wynne, Finance Minister Charles Sousa and Education Minister Indira Naidoo-Harris unveiled the $2.2-billion initiative on Tuesday at a school in Toronto.
The program would fund the cost of full-day, licensed child care starting once children turn two-and-a-half. The funding would cover their care costs until they become eligible for full-day kindergarten.
"No more anxiety about costs ... The freedom to choose when it's time for mom or dad to go back to work. This is a big change," Wynne said. "We're playing the long game here, folks. This is the investment in the people of this province."
In Ontario, kids are eligible for junior kindergarten in the calendar year they turn four, and senior kindergarten the year they turn five. Wynne said critics will likely say the new program is unaffordable, just as some did when full-day kindergarten was introduced.
"It's time to decide if we'll keep going by making it more affordable to raise a child in Ontario and give every child the very best start, or go backwards and cut programs that are making a real difference at a time when families need more support," she said. "That's the choice that we're facing right now."
Wynne said the announcement, made the day before the government tables its final budget ahead of the June election, is estimated to save families $17,000 a year.
The government decided to have the child-care program cater to kids two-and-a-half and older based on demand for services, Wynne said.
Pre-election budget this week
"What we know is that it's this age group where there's the largest number of families who are looking for child care," she said. "It's the two and a half to four (year olds) ... This the age group where there's the real crunch and the bulk of people who are looking for child care that's why this is the age group we're starting with."
The government said the free child-care program was developed after consultations with parents and educators and on the advice of economist Gordon Cleveland.
Tuesday's announcement is the latest in a series of high-profile and big-ticket initiatives unveiled in the days leading up to the provincial budget.
The government pledged millions to expand its OHIP Plus pharma-care program which currently covers drug costs for youth and will eventually extend to seniors as well. The province has also committed to extensive new funding for hospitals and mental health supports.
Progressive Conservative legislator Lisa MacLeod said the government is spending wildly to win votes ahead of the spring election.
Kathleen Wynne ... is pretending to be Oprah without the money Oprah has.PC MPP Lisa MacLeod
"Kathleen Wynne ... is pretending to be Oprah without the money Oprah has," she said. "What are her motives? Will it ever really happen? They promised they weren't going to run a deficit. Then weeks later they decided it was going to be at least $8 billion."
NDP leader Andrea Horwath said the child-care plan will provide some relief to parents but leaves out an important age group — people with children under two and a half years old. That means the program won't help women return to work as the premier suggested, Horwath said.
"This announcement does nothing for those women who are trying to get back to work after their parental leave," she said. "You'll have to ask Kathleen Wynne why she chose some families over others in terms of helping them with their childcare costs."
The election is currently set for June 7.
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