The BC Green Caucus expect childcare to be a top investment priority in the 2018 budget – here’s what you need to know.

Both the BC Greens and the BC NDP campaigned to make significant investments in childcare and early childhood education. The Confidence and Supply Agreement between the BC NDP and the BC Greens commits both parties to work collaboratively to invest in childcare and early childhood education to improve quality, expand spaces, increase affordability and ensure childcare is accessible for all families, with a focus on early childhood education. Over the last five months, I have met regularly with the Minister for Children and Family Development and Minister of State for Child Care to advance this file.

This shared commitment is a historic opportunity for B.C. to invest in a system that will make life more affordable for families while making a significant investment in early learning, which evidence shows has myriad social, economic and health benefits. It is also important that we consider all the available evidence so that we can build a childcare and early childhood education system that delivers the best possible benefits to British Columbians. B.C. is home to innovative thinkers, word class researchers and deeply knowledgeable and experienced advocates. I hosted six of them in early February at a roundtable discussion about the future of child care and early childhood education in B.C.

With panelists from a diverse range of expertise, the discussion was a great way to learn about what is possible for early care and learning in BC. As well as what is at stake if we merely expand the status quo.

Our roundtable experts were:

  • Karen Isaac, author and Executive Director of BC Aboriginal Child Care Society
  • Dr. Paul Kershaw, policy professor at UBC in the School of Population and Public Health and Human Early Learning Partnership, and Founder of Generation Squeeze
  • Dr. Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw, professor of Early Childhood Education at Western University
  • Dr. Kathleen Kummen, professor in the Early Childhood Care and Education Program and Chair of Innovation and Inquiry in Childhood Studies at Capilano University
  • Zahra Jimale, director of law reform at West Coast Leaf, mediator and educator
  • Emily Mlieczk, Executive Director of Early Childhood Educators of BC

We covered a number of vital topics during our discussion, below are a few of the highlights.

Early Neurological Development

The first years of life are a phase of prolific neural development, with MRI studies indicating 80 percent of all neural connections are formed by age three. It is also a time when children’s brain development is highly influenced by their environment. Infants and toddlers, research indicates, are capable of complex thought, reasoning, and their development at this stage can impact the course of their life.

There is broad consensus that children who benefit from high quality, affordable child care enter adulthood healthier, better educated, and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system or become pregnant as a teenager—all of which contribute to long term health, happiness, higher earnings, as well as higher tax revenues for governments and reduced government spending. Quality, affordable early childhood education is good for families – mothers and children in particular – and good for the economy. And yet, the child care sector in BC is currently unable to meet the needs of families (and unable to advance to these greater societal aspirations).

Current Care

Child care utilization rates for licensed centers is currently 85.2% for the infant and toddler age group across the province, with rates over 80% classified as being high demand with waitlists. Many jurisdictions – North Fraser, Vancouver, Richmond, South Vancouver Island, North Vancouver Island, and Northwest BC – are pushing 90%. Simultaneously, the cost of care has risen sharply. Monthly child care costs in BC are often higher than their mortgage or rent payments. For a single child in Vancouver the average cost of toddler care is $1,292.00 per month. Richmond had the largest increase in preschooler fees in Canada between 2016 and 2017—12% or an additional $105 a month —which is ten times the rate of inflation.

There is an environment of immediate need – to get on a waitlist, get a spot, afford a spot, to keep jobs and housing so they don’t have to move away from their childcare. People need help with childcare now, not in ten years when their child is 13. The people who voted with childcare as one of their top issues in the 2017 provincial election likely have young children or grandchildren who need care now for next few years, but these centers can take years to build (both in terms of the facilities and the teachers).

Within this delicate web of public perception, policy realities, advocacy lobbying, and potential for early childhood education advancements, the BC Green caucus’ work on this file will aim to culminate a sense of “yes, and…” We hope to advocate for the importance of early childhood education and educators, while not dismissing the current pressing needs faced by so many. Yes, families need affordable facilities to keep their children safe while they work, and those children should be nurtured to learn and grow while they are there.

Children in kindergarten today – of which there are 45,000 in BC – will retire in the year 2078. They will face significant environmental and social challenges in their lifetime. Challenges much different than the ones faced in ours. Children need to be educated in an innovative, engaging, thoughtful manner that prepares them. In that regard, the early learning years are just as important as the K-12 grades, if not more so. But we continue to treat early childhood educators like babysitters and set lowest common denominator standards for their facilities. Yes, child care centers absolutely must be clean, safe, and have an appropriate child to adult ratio, and they should also strive to meet a high educational standard that helps their young students thrive.

The challenges we are facing in BC – needing to simultaneously create more affordable childcare spaces, train more early educators, and raise the level of training for existing care providers – are not unique. Different jurisdictions are testing various strategies, with varying degrees of success. In the United States some districts are requiring all preschool teachers to obtain associate degrees by 2020, but the policy has been met with some opposition because it is discriminatory against teachers who may not be able to afford the time or money needed to upgrade. And, there is no consensus that requiring teachers to have postsecondary degrees is the magic bullet for children’s success. “One argument holds that preschool teachers with college educations have not been shown to improve students’ educational outcomes compared with those who do not have degrees but have been trained in child development…The other argument is that increasing credential requirements without first raiding wages places too much burden on already-overtaxed teachers,” writes the New York Times.

Apprenticeships, where the upgrade teaching within done in the early childhood education classroom, may be a promising compromise. It invests in existing teachers, facilitating their development while they continue to work. Of course, it is an expensive way to upgrade facilities and would be challenging to implement across the entire province. But it may work for some communities.

Finding the right balance between competing imperatives – using available government funds to expand access to so that as many students as possible receive some form of early education, or use it to improve quality in fewer places where the need and payoff are greatest – won’t be easy.

Quality

Another challenge inherent in the “quality” early childhood education discussion is its link to ongoing colonialism. How we define and understand the concept of “quality” early education and care is culturally determined. It is rooted in how one sees and experiences the world, as well as how one thinks other people should live. However well intentioned, it often comes from a place of racial or socioeconomic privilege.

As Karen Isaac, Executive Director of BC Aboriginal Child Care Society said: “Given the long history of Aboriginal children being forcibly removed from their families and communities to residential schools and the current high numbers of Aboriginal children being taken into government care, it is no wonder that some poverty-stricken families may be ambivalent about ECDC and see it as another type of policing over children and their families.”

Continuing, “For many First Nations and Métis people in BC, the intergenerational impacts of residential schools on children families and communities continue to cast a long shadow over policies and approaches for the education and care of young Aboriginal children. Memories of the ill treatment endured by Aboriginal children for more than a century in residential schools (until the last such school closed in 1996) under the guise of education but assimilative in intent are still raw. The damage caused to Aboriginal children and families is very real, multigenerational and ongoing.”

Likewise, the concept of “universality” is also problematic. First Nations in BC, scholars write, have a failed history with universality, a system that tends to serve the majority while actively neglecting the disempowered minority.

Isaac writes, “Universality, High Quality and Comprehensiveness as guiding principles for a child care agenda will likely work well for most of mainstream Canadian society.  However, all three principles and their components tend to blur or ignore the separate identity, rights of Indigenous peoples, their separate history and separate constitutional status as Aboriginal peoples and their different child care, education, and development requirements.”

Continuing, “As we learned from the civil rights movement, progressive policy in our context is necessarily radical policy…and of course this is what First Nations who assert sovereignty continue to require, where the starting point is neither the status quo nor merely its expansion.”

We must acknowledge and reflect the right of Aboriginal peoples to be the decision makers in matters that affect their children.

Educators

Fostering a sense of professional identity for early childhood educators will help attract people to sector and retain existing educators. They need to be held to a high standards and treated as respected educators, not babysitters. A large part of this, especially in the interim, can be represented in the way elected officials talk about them. Government tends to call child care and ECE professionals “service providers” or “workers” instead of “educators,” thereby reinforcing the assumptions that the work they do is unimportant, unsophisticated, and undeserving of a professional wage. The BC Green caucus will make every effort to speak about the sector in a manner than reflects the value of educators, the importance of public education, respect for children’s social, cognitive, emotional, and physical growth, and an awareness of community and cultural differences.

I expect child care, along with housing, to be the top priority in the 2018 budget. But more than numbers, this issue is about children, families, cultures, poverty, and education for the century ahead. I am committed to moving this issue forward in B.C. and will do so armed with the reinforced knowledge from our roundtable discussion. Thank you again to all our amazing panelists.

Audio Recording

A full recording of the roundtable session is available here.

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