Providing structured early childhood education pays social and economic dividends. Yet it’s not rising to the top of the educational agenda. Should governments offer universal childcare programs or target support where it will do the most good? It may not be a simple “either/or” question

by: Paul W. Bennett

Community activist Jim Mustard is a passionate and idealistic person. The Cape Breton native believes firmly that when early childhood education (ECE) programs are offered universally to all children from age two to five, amazing things happen. “The core relationships between mothers and children are deepened and strengthened, and we reap longer-term benefits in terms of better health and lower crime rates,” he says. “Our children desperately need the stimulus provided through universal resource-rich, play-based early learning.”
Mustard comes by his views honestly. Not only is he the co-ordinator of Inverness County’s Early Years Co-op Education program and Nova Scotia’s chapter of Roots of Empathy but he’s also the son of the late world-renowned physician Dr. Fraser Mustard, as well as a fellow with his father’s Council for Early Child Development. Following in his father’s footsteps, Mustard, 53, campaigns widely to promote child-development research, science, and success stories about the vital importance of early human development and the potential that can be unlocked by bringing communities together to ensure equity for every child from the start.
It’s a powerful and compelling message, and yet one that is being openly challenged by researchers and policy-makers. Take, for example, an alternative view recently sketched out by Halifax-based economist Ian Munro in a groundbreaking November 2010 research paper produced for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). In his report, entitled See Dick Grow Old, See Jane Retire, Munro re-frames the early childhood learning issue and argues that programs targeting only the neediest families may serve society better, help address a looming labour shortage, and promote longer-term economic productivity.
At 42, Munro is a relatively young child education advocate and the father of two young boys. He agrees that quality early childhood programs can have long-term payoffs and require investments by governments in the coming years. “We’re facing a new demographic world,” he says, adding that properly targeted early child care and education programs can help generate higher labour force participation rates and turn out more productive citizens.
Government support for child care and early learning programs has recently been a front-burner issue across Canada. Over the past few years, policy-makers (excluding Quebec) have been wrestling with the critical issue of whether early learning programs for children ages two to five should be universal and publicly funded and delivered, or targeted to the neediest families, or some combination of both options. So far, supporters of universal programs have dominated the public arena, especially in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, which in 2010 weighed in with “Securing the Future of Our Children,” a provincial child care education strategy.
Much of the momentum for expanded early childhood education has been generated by Dr, Mustard, Canada’s leading child-development advocate, who passed away on Nov. 16 at age 84. Early brain development has been linked to improved physical health, behaviour, and learning in later stages of life. Research indicates that countries such as Finland and Cuba, where universal early child development programs are provided, outperform those in which such programs are more chaotic. Renowned University of Chicago economist James Heckman is often referenced to strengthen the case for universality. “Redirecting funds toward the early years is a sound investment in the productivity and safety of American society and also removes a powerful source of inequality,” he stated in a January 2007 speech.
In Canada, Quebec stands out as a notable example of universality; since 1997 that province has offered a low-cost public day care program designed to support two-parent working families. Most other provinces have chosen to expand universality merely by expanding kindergarten programs. In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has embarked upon an ambitious all-day kindergarten program for four- and five-year-olds, based on certified teachers and costing $1.5 billion over six years.
In Canada’s smallest province, full-day kindergarten has expanded into elementary schools for the first time. That program, introduced in September of 2010, provides mandatory full-day, play-based kindergarten for 1,450 five-year-olds. So far only Nova Scotia lags in moving forward with early childhood education.
Child care advocates such as Ontario’s Dr. Charles Pascal focus almost exclusively on giving children the best educational start in life to promote the long-term well-being of children, families, and the economy. That approach draws heavily upon the work of J. Douglas Willms and the University of New Brunswick’s Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy. Willms established his reputation by conducting the 2002 National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth; it culminated in the publication of Vulnerable Children: Findings from Canada’s National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth, published by the University of Alberta Press in 2002, which received the Canadian Policy Research Award that same year. The Canadian Council on Learning, headed by Dr. Paul Cappon, also strongly supports robust early childhood education initiatives. “At least one in four young children is vulnerable,” the Council reported in January of 2007, quoting from Willms’s conclusions. Furthermore, in the absence of quality early learning programs, the chances of these “vulnerable children” leading healthy and productive lives are limited, most often because of social disadvantage.
Consultant Kathleen Flanagan was chosen to spearhead the recent P.E.I. kindergarten initiative. “We faced significant challenges,” she says. “The system was dislocated. Up until 2000, parents paid for kindergarten because it was an ECE program outside the school system. Before that time, public schooling only began at age six.” The big change came later. In September of 2000, P.E.I. began to deliver half-day kindergarten, albeit via myriad small early childhood centres. Then came Flanagan’s report and, since then, kindergarten finally became a full day and mandatory across the province.
Flanagan treads carefully when promoting her reforms. Initially, parents with young families saw ECE programs as “organized baby-sitting” or weekday support for working parents. “We succeeded because we changed the focus of the whole discussion in P.E.I.,” she says. “Gradually it became more about providing not just day-care spaces but also early learning experiences.”
While Flanagan promoted a mix of public and private services, she remains in the larger universal side of the early childhood education debate. She considers Pascal to be a major influence, especially since she recently enrolled in an Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) doctoral program. “Early childhood education has benefits for everybody,” she insists. “If we’re going to improve literacy, we need to start at the beginning.”
The kindergarten program on P.E.I. strongly reflects Flanagan’s views about what’s best for young children. “The majority of struggling children are actually in the middle class,” she says. “And while they aren’t poor, they do need help in the system or they may be left behind.” Having said that, she aimed to find a consensus. “I was surprised at how open Islanders were to a system for all, with choices up to age five.”

Untold economic benefits
AIMS researcher Ian Munro comes at the issue quite differently. Drawing upon economic and demographic research, he and others see child care and ECE programs as possible solutions to Canada’s looming labour shortage, a problem particularly acute in Atlantic Canada. Given an aging population and growing pension crisis, his report zeroes in on the potential for a sharp drop in standard of living. In the absence of either increased birth rates or attracting more immigrants, the alternatives in his view are to increase the labour participation rate and improve productivity.
Better and more affordable access to child care and ECE programs can produce untold economic benefits. Reliable quality programs will allow more parents (chiefly mothers) to re-enter the workforce more quickly and more fully. They will also enable more families to have more children. Such programs can improve the school-readiness of youngsters and, if sustained by further educational and social programs, help reduce the incidence of youth crime, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, and welfare dependency.
Yet family-life advocates go much further than Munro in advocating for targeted funding. “We start with giving parents a choice,” says Andrea Mrozek, the research manager at the Canadian Institute of Marriage and the Family (CIMF). She cites research on Canadian family views conducted in 2006 to buttress her argument that government-run day care centres aren’t the first choice of parents, most of whom would prefer to have a parent stay home with their children. “Heavily subsidized programs only attract people because they are wrongly perceived to be free,” says Mrozek.
Mrozek and the CIMF oppose all universal programs, including mandatory “wrap-around” kindergarten in Ontario. They see the advance of state-sponsored ECE as a threat to families and free choice for women. “We favour putting parents in the driver’s seat and avoiding the professionalization of parenting,” says Mrozek. While she views the Harper government’s $100-a-month direct subsidy as inadequate, she still favours alternatives to a one-size-fits-all system. “Lowering taxes can help hard-pressed families,” says Mrozek. “Putting more money in the hands of mothers and families remains the best policy.”
Support for universal early learning programs does appear to be waning, especially since the 2009 global financial meltdown. AIMS’s report was written in this vein and draws attention to research raising critical questions about the efficacy of ECE in mitigating future socio-economic challenges. Munro’s study tends to side with universalist critics such as Canadian economist Susan Prentice. In spite of oft-cited evidence of broad socio-economic benefits, in 2008 Prentice described the forecasted returns on universal programs as “giddily unrealistic.”
For example, a 2005 study of Quebec’s public plan reported that some 40% of the costs of the expensive program were recovered through increased income and payroll taxes generated by the increased numbers of working parents. A 1998 University of Toronto study, based mostly on American research, claimed that universal publicly funded child care and ECE for all children aged two to five years would cost $5.2 billion but produce double that in economic returns. These are the same studies that both Munro and Prentice call into question.
Interestingly, Munro’s AIMS research report provoked an unusual public reaction. The popular media, including Halifax’s Chronicle Herald, gave it favourable news coverage. Munro described the response as, “What? AIMS published this?” He elaborated his point about the reaction like this: “When AIMs says that this is an area where public dollars should be spent, people sit up and take notice.”
Clearly, some type of ECE policy is now recognized as vital for a multitude of reasons. Yet pouring millions or even billions into universal programs may not provide the best payback. James Heckman’s 2006 warning in The Wall Street Journal is probably worth heeding. Fully embracing universal programs, he forecast, could be “inefficient, costly, wasteful of public dollars, and probably not effective in helping poor kids.” The best option may well be a mixed system. If that’s the case, Munro might be pointing us in the right direction: “What we need now is not costly universal ventures, but experimentation to find the right formula,” he says.
Shifting economic winds in Canada may well scuttle any plans for a national, universal early childhood education program. Without federal impetus, universalists such as Jim Mustard fear that the Atlantic Canadian provinces will simply be unable to ever fund such programs. “We are the worst province in Canada,” he says, referring to Nova Scotia. “We continue to hide behind the illusion that families support one another, so over 60% of the children entering our school system are at risk.” For Mustard and the CECD, a universal platform is essential to promoting early child development and ensuring healthier, more resilient communities.
Either way, policy-makers must acknowledge that the issue of our children’s future transcends politics, and that well-considered, short-term financial investments could pay long-term social dividends.
Paul W. Bennett is the founding director of Schoolhouse Consulting in Halifax and the author of Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada, 1850–2010.