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Working Parents Need Real Choices -- Regardless of Test Scores

Undoubtedly, like most public or private initiatives, daycares in Quebec could probably do more to support school readiness. But they are still providing the kind of accessible support that most Canadians families need and can't find.

While paying for my groceries last week, I had one of those moments that viscerally reminded me about why an issue I support from a policy level, matters so much on a personal level.

As my exhausted-looking cashier was ringing me through, I listened to her describe to her co-worker how she'd missed lunch because she had no childcare for the summer.

During her break, she'd taken the bus to go pick up her son from a neighbour's house and then taken him to a friends place across the city. The neighbour had now started working afternoon shifts, so she would have to do this until school started.

Her story stayed with me as I picked up my own kids from their downtown daycare (where getting our two unsubsidized spots seemed had like a triumph against the odds).

And this mom's story was what came to my mind when I read the findings of a recent study examining the impact of Quebec's universal childcare program.

In 1997 Quebec implemented a low-cost universal child-care policy, which was the first of its kind in North America. Last year there were 210,000 subsidized spots available, at a cost of just seven dollars per day. According to Stats Canada, the average monthly cost of all-day care five days a week for a four-year-old in Montreal is approximately $205 versus an average of $800 in Toronto.

When Quebec first implemented subsidized day-care, the policy had two main goals: the first was to increase the number of mothers in the workforce and the second, was to enhance the academic prospects of children from low-income families.

On the first goal the policy has been overwhelming success, it's the second that's at issue.

The study tested the children school readiness using the Peabody Pictures and Vocabulary Test (PPVT). This is an oral test used to gauge verbal ability. The scores of the Quebec children were then compared to the nationwide results of 10,000 four-year-olds and 18,000 five-year-olds.

The results, which were described in one article as "explosive" found that while there is no significant impact on the 4-year-old group, among 5-year-olds, PPVT scores were down by 4.9 points, leading the three Montreal researchers behind the study to declare that "the picture is not quite what it should be for a policy that seeks to increase early literacy skills and better prepare children for school."

However, the study and these results are controversial. To begin with, the findings have yet to be peer reviewed (and contradict international studies on the topic). Most tellingly, the quality of the daycare was not factored into the comparison of the children's language performance.

The question of funding universal day care has always been emotional and decisive. Most likely the findings of this study have already made its way into the arsenal of those opposed to the universal daycare plan and will remain there regardless of what the peer review board ultimately finds.

The last attempt at a national childcare plan was just before the minority Martin government fell in 2005 (when the federal government had managed to sign deals with each province).

However, when Prime Minister Harper came to power in January 2006, the system was scrapped and replaced with the current system of giving parents a monthly $100 for each child under six. The Conservative government likes to say that they took money from bureaucrats and lobbyists and gave it to the real experts on daycare, "Mom and Dad."

I'm a mother of two under the age of six and can, as an "expert" tell you that the $200 a month buys less than three days of childcare whether its from a nanny or daycare.

Which brings me back to the cashier.

Even if this study is correct, and lets say that test scores do go down, how much does it really matter if mothers who have to work know that their kids are safe, with other children their own age and engaged in some constructive activities?

Undoubtedly, like most public or private initiatives, daycares in Quebec could probably do more to support school readiness. But, currently, they are still providing the kind of accessible support that most Canadians families need and can't find.

Part of the problem is that our current discussion on childcare is based on false choices, as though the majority of mothers have the financial option to opt out of working -- which is not the case.

According to 2010 data from Catalyst Canada, 62.4 per cent of all women ages 15 and older worked. And although women continue to earn an average of 71.3 per cent of men's earnings, of married families, 42 per cent of wives earned approximately the same or more than their husbands. Forty-three per cent of wives earned at least 45 per cent of the family total income and 18 per cent of dual earner wives are their family's primary breadwinners (defined as bringing in more than 55 per cent of household income) when measured in hourly earnings.

This data doesn't include the 21 per cent of female lone parents and over 606,000 children under 1 who are defined by Statistics Canada as living in low income.

In absence of available and affordable daycare spots, parents are forced to patch together what they can through friends and family or resort to unlicensed, home-care options.

I know we're in a moment where big national programs seem almost '70s retro and out of step with the prevailing anti-government mood and many believe that even if they wanted to, government can't and shouldn't be trusted to do big things.

But a national daycare plan doesn't take choices away from parents who prefer (and can afford) to stay home, to hire a nanny or enlist in the support of extended family. What it does, is give better choices to those with few other options and help protect vulnerable children from becoming more so.

Reva Seth is currently working on her second book, The MomShift: From Maternity to Opportunity, Inspiring stories of career success after children.

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