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To Alberta, from Quebec: Don’t copy our failed government daycare plan

November 29, 2016
To Alberta, from Quebec: Don’t copy our failed government daycare plan

This op-ed was published in the Calgary Herald on November 26, 2016.

By: Paige MacPherson and Carl Vallée 

Even kids know it’s wrong to copy off someone else’s work. But it’s even worse when the kid you’re copying off got the answers wrong.

The Alberta government announced on Tuesday that it is inching forward with its plan for $25-per-day daycare. As a pilot project, the government will be giving large subsidies to new daycare centres, and capping parents’ daily daycare fees at $25.

The idea behind the policy is a good one. Affordable childcare is a noble goal. But the devil is in the details. 

In Quebec, $7-per-day daycare turned out to be much more expensive than planned. The plan was introduced in 1997 by then-education minister Pauline Marois (remember her?). The cost-per-day started at $5, then increased to $7, then increased beyond that. A report by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) showed that since 1997, the taxpayers’ share of the cost of Quebec’s daycare system has risen by more than 700 per cent, while total spaces have only increased by 166 per cent.

The federal NDP proposed a similar $15-per-day daycare plan in the last election. The CTF report, penned by a course lecturer at HEC Montreal and PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, calculated that the federal NDP’s plan would cost 80 per cent more than the party estimated in the first year, and $1.33 billion more over a four-year term.

When the Quebec government introduced its daycare plan, the cost estimate was $290 million per year. By 2014-15, that cost was $2.6 billion. Like it will in Alberta, the ballooning costs contributed to the province’s weighty deficits, ironically saddling children with mountains of government debt.

Childcare centre workers in Quebec became unionized under the plan and this unionization increased costs dramatically. The unionization of home-based daycare workers alone cost Quebecers an estimated $1 billion.

The plan in Quebec was intended to increase female participation in the workforce. While female participation rates did increase, they also did in many provinces, and some Atlantic provinces even outpaced Quebec. No other provinces had government daycare.

In Quebec, parents found the daycare waitlists long and confusing. The Montreal Economic Institute noted that, predictably, demand for these daycare spots increased from both new users and families who had previously used other forms of childcare.

Subsidized daycare spots were scooped up by affluent families who didn’t need the subsidy. As Maclean’s Magazine noted, families in the top 25 per cent of annual earnings were twice as likely to scoop up a daycare spot than those in the bottom quarter.

Let’s ask a question of both Quebec and Alberta: why would a province with a massive deficit spend massive sums of money subsidizing the rich?

If the government wants to help low-income families access child care, why not simply do that? Why make the program universal?

Daycare quality also declined. A report from the Institute for Research on Public Policy found that only 27 per cent of government regulated daycare centres in Quebec received a ‘good’ quality rating. Twelve per cent received a ‘poor’ rating, while 61 per cent received a rating of ‘minimum’ quality.

If affordable childcare for all is the goal, the government should seek out an approach that actually achieves that without compromising quality and subsidizing the wealthy. If the Alberta government is determined to have a role in daycare, then an income-tested, voucher-based system would work better, giving the funds only to the Albertan families who need it – and giving them the ability to choose for themselves which daycare is the best fit.

In the meantime, the government seems intent on copying off Quebec’s homework. The problem is, Quebec failed this test.

Paige MacPherson is Alberta Director and Carl Vallée is Quebec Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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