By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
In the months leading up to the June 7 election, provincial parties have been rolling out promises in hopes of winning favour with the voting public, with some of those promises connected to child care.
The Ontario Liberal Party has pledged, by 2020, to install free child care for toddlers aged two-and-a-half until they reach kindergarten.
Overall, The Liberals announced plans to invest $2.2 billion into child care over a three-year period.
Not to be outdone, the NDP unveiled a plan for free child care for children under four for families earning less than $40,000 a year. The party states their plan will result in an average of $12/per in child care costs for many families.
Under the NDP plan, annual funding would jump from $1.6 billion to $5.4 billion in five years.
Ontario PC Party leader Doug Ford has announced a tax rebate program that would cover up to $6,750 of childcare costs.
Rebates would come on a sliding scale. Low-income families would get 75 per cent of costs back, while families earning more than $150,000 would receive a rebate of 26 per cent.
As reported earlier in The Oshawa Express, the region has benefited significantly over the past year from provincial investments in child care.
On the wave of $10.1 million in increased funding from the province, the wait list for subsidized child care in Durham has dropped dramatically.
During this year’s budget deliberations, commissioner of social services Dr. Hugh Drouin said waiting times have gone from 12 months to approximately two months.
Roxanne Lambert, director of children services for Durham Region, told The Express in October 2017 that the extra funding was “the largest investment in child care I’ve ever seen and I’ve worked for the region for 31 years.”
Between 2007 and 2017, the number of child care spaces in Durham has almost tripled.
As of December 2017, there were 24,014 child care spaces in Durham.
Over the same period, the number of licensed sites rose from 177 to 276.
This can largely be attributed to the emergence of full-day kindergarten.
The number of kindergarten spaces has increased by 839 per cent in the past decade, sitting at almost 6,400 at the end of last year.
In terms of childcare affordability, Durham sits in the middle of the pack in comparison with other large cities and municipalities across Canada.
However, when compared to Toronto, Markham, Mississauga, Vaughan, Kitchener, London and Hamilton, Durham has the second lowest rates in Ontario, beat only by Windsor.
The average monthly cost for infants sits at $1,128, toddlers at $987, and preschoolers at $868.
Regardless of which party comes to power after the June 7 election, and what the reality of their childcare investment becomes, the region is moving forward on its own volition.
Regional council endorsed Durham’s Child Care and Early Learning Plan for 2018 to 2022 at the lastest meeting.
The plan identifies several key service priorities for enhancing the growth of the local child care system.
At the top of the list is maximizing funding available for licensed child care.
Lambert says the first directive for the region is to decrease waitlists for subsidized child care and increase the total number of available spaces.
Once these goals are met, if there are funds left over, the region can address the issue of affordability.
“If you still have funding, you could flow that out to the operators so they wouldn’t have to increase their fees,” she says.
Lambert says the highest expense for child care centres is staffing costs.
Increases to minimum wage and other pay standards for child care workers have led providers to increase fees.
The second priority in the four-year plan is increasing the attraction and retention of ‘quality’ registered early childhood educators (RECE).
Because licensed child care programs now required to have an RECE on staff, the need for qualified workers is greater than ever.
“The program is growing and expanding, and that has put the real strain on the system,” Lambert says. “The demand would be similar all across Ontario. All municipalities are going to have the same needs.”
To address the situation, some postsecondary institutions are starting to fast-track programs for ECEs.
However, with population and development skyrocketing across the region, RECEs are required as quickly as they are coming into the system.
As many are relatively new to the child care sector, Lambert says her department will also focus on providing opportunities for employees to improve their skills and knowledge of the system.
Expanding the licensed home child care system is another important point of action in the plan.
At this point, Lambert says the majority of operators offering child care out their homes are unlicensed, and records are vague at best.
“We don’t know how many people are part of the unlicensed system,” she says.
In the report, it is noted there is a “considerable scope for expansion” of the home child care, especially in “communities where access to licensed child care is limited, either entirely or for certain age groups, such as infants.”
The report states the current system requires review and reform to align with modern legislation and funding models and “to simplify an overly complex model.”
Lambert says it is understandable why home child care is a favourable choice for families.
According to a survey of parents, one of the reasons they choose home child care is due to the flexibility.
Another factor in some instances is simply cheaper options.
“Maybe the cost of the care is $30 a day instead of $40 because there is no administration fee,” Lambert says.
Lambert reports that many unlicensed operators are reluctant to integrate into the licensed system.
Providers have voiced concerns regarding enhanced monitoring, increased responsibility for documentation and financial reporting, and the ability to set what providers perceive as competitive prices.
To Lambert, the region must find ways to make their system more attractive to unlicensed providers, a step she admits may have been lacklustre in the past.
“I don’t think we’ve done a lot to promote the system to them,” Lambert says.