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Gallant government ponders major pre-election daycare changes

The Gallant government has been discussing a significant intervention in daycare delivery that promises increased quality and lower costs for parents.

Meetings held to discuss a government-directed and partially funded system similar to P.E.I.'s

The provincial government is reported to be discussing an overhaul of its daycare system to a more subsidized model.

In a major initiative that will be aimed at young families, CBC News has learned the Gallant government has been openly discussing a significant intervention in daycare delivery in New Brunswick that promises increased quality and lower costs for parents.

However, the plan is potentially expensive and politically risky since New Brunswick Liberals also made large daycare promises to parents before the last election and did not follow through.

Still, daycare operators say education department officials have been holding meetings around the province to discuss a switch to a government directed and partially funded system, similar to those run in Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Manitoba.

P.E.I.'s system

In Prince Edward Island, daycare standards and developmental programs for children are governed by the province. It also funds accredited centres directly to lower parental costs. 

Parents still pay daily fees on the island, but they are subsidized, universal across all participating daycares and set by government.

Ashley Cook, who operates the Chatham Daycare centre in Miramichi, said the province has made it clear it is planning changes to daycare in New Brunswick that mimic much of what is done in Prince Edward Island.

Early childhood policy expert describes the Prince Edward Island model as the best in Canada. (CBC)

"The last couple of information sessions we have had one of the things that they said is going to be included in the New Brunswick early learning designation is a set pay scale for parents," said Cook. 

"That is one thing they have repeatedly said is that parents will be paying a reduced cost and it will be universal across New Brunswick early learning facilities."

Fee uncertainty

The key unknown in New Brunswick's plan if it proceeds is how much direct funding to qualifying daycares will be offered and how low that will drive fees charged to parents.   

In Quebec, the province pays 85 per cent of the cost of the daycare system and parents of preschoolers — with some exceptions — are charged a flat rate of $7.75 per child per day. That's the lowest rate in Canada but costs the Quebec government $2.5 billion per year..  

In Prince Edward Island, the province funds 50 per cent of daycare costs and parents are charged $27 per day for toddlers between the ages of three and five with further subsidies available to low-income families.

The main reason child care is so expensive is there's not enough public money in it.- Martha Friendly, Childcare Resource and Research Unit

Currently in New Brunswick, daycare is a haphazard collection of independently run for-profit and non-profit businesses with some government regulation and oversight. 

The province funds about 25 per cent of daycare costs through a patchwork of programs and parents are charged varying rates from daycare to daycare that can run as high as $37 per day for four and five-year-olds.

Experts say standardizing daycare programs, enforcing quality and pushing rates charged to New Brunswick parents down to Quebec or even Prince Edward Island levels will require significant government funding.

"It's a fundamental and necessary change," said Martha Friendly, the executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit in Toronto. 

"You can do it on the cheap, but you get what you pay for.  The main reason child care is so expensive is there's not enough public money in it."

Early Learning Centres

On Tuesday, Premier Gallant announced a voluntary program that will allow existing daycares to upgrade themselves, with funding assistance from the province, to what the government is calling "Early Learning Centres". 

The move was not directly tied to plans for larger changes, but it is similar to Prince Edward Island's creation of "Early Years Centres" in 2010 that began the switch of daycare in that province to a government-funded and supervised system.  

Joining was voluntary for existing daycares on the island as well and more than 80 per cent signed on, according to Kerry McQuaig, an early childhood policy expert with the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development at the University of Toronto.

McQuaig said Prince Edward Island now runs the best daycare system in Canada.

"Every three years we do a cross-Canada scan of where the different early-year systems are at and P.E.I. has overtaken Quebec," McQuaig said Wednesday.

"The edge that P.E.I. has is there are some assurances that these are good programs for kids to be in."

Premier Brian Gallant pictured at a Quispamsis daycare in 2014 while making a promise about new daycare spending. (Brian Gallant/Facebook)

Province stays mum

Kelly Cormier, a spokesperson for the province's Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, did not respond Wednesday to questions about whether the province is planning a major public move into the daycare field like Prince Edward Island or whether a Premier Gallant news conference scheduled in Saint John on Thursday afternoon about daycare plans will address the issue.

Liberals also unveiled major daycare plans in advance of the last provincial election but followed through on few of the major initiatives.   

A $120-million promise to pay daycare operators $20,000 for each new space they created over five years was never implemented and a second promise to add $60 million to a daycare assistance program for young families over four years has so far received only $4 million in new money. 

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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