Monday, January 18, 2010

Columnist who knows vs. one who stokes a fire

I compare and contrast two columnists (who happen to work for the same chain) who've offered up their opinion on full-day kindergarten since the list of the first-phase schools was announced Jan. 12.
First up is Christina Blizzard's column from Jan. 13, which ran in the TorSun that day and as usual got pretty wide pickup across the chain's other papers across Ontario. Given the subject matter (most media in the province did some sort of coverage on the year one sites), Blizzard's column was actually picked up by quite a few more papers than usual that Wednesday.
The headline that actually caught my eye and directed me to the original column at the Toronto Sun site was one used by the St. Thomas Times-Journal, semi-quoting a line in the column-- "All-day kindergarten just free babysitting." From the column:
And what did McGuinty want to talk about at his first news conference of the new year in Chatham yesterday?
All-day kindergarten, which when fully implemented will cost a whopping $1.5 billion a year.
There is massive unemployment and welfare rolls are soaring. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is under pressure to cut a $24.7-billion deficit. Yet the government is pushing ahead with this Cadillac version of kindergarten, that will require teachers to be in the classroom for the full day, too. Even the government’s advisor, Charles Pascal, suggested early childhood educators only could be used half the time.
The premier said yesterday the new program will employ 5,000-6,000 teachers and close to 20,000 early childhood educators.
This year the program will cost $200 million for about 35,000 kids. In 2011 that will grow to $300 million for 50,000 four and five-year-olds. When phased in by 2015, it will accommodate 240,000 kids.
The premier was vague about where the money was coming from to pay for it, but did suggest that if we don’t do this, we won’t be competitive with the rest of the world.
I’m not quite sure how that works. This economic downturn has hit this province particularly hard.
Many people — especially older workers who paid to babysit their own children — have been laid off. Seniors have seen their pension savings evaporate.
Yet those people are supposed to cough up more in taxes so kids who are four and five years old now will get a job 20 years from now?
Give me a break. This is nothing more than free babysitting for two-income families who could well afford to pay their own way.
Way to stoke the fire, Christine. So, did you choose to set aside the knowledge that kindergarten is not babysitting? Or do you not know the difference between the two? It's a statement that would both anger supporters of full-day kindergarten and get its detractors saying "you betcha."
As to her main point-- that McGuinty is fiddling while Rome / Ontario / the world / oldsters' pensions burn... the government's 2007 education platform gave very, very high listing to full-day kindergarten. Some might wonder, independent of the other questions, why it took McGuinty so long to take the step taken on Monday.
In comes Moira MacDonald this weekend, speaking in more the more nuanced terms of someone who actually writes about education for a living. She's focusing on how "optional" may not really mean optional at all when it comes to enrolling in full-day kindergarten.
When Dalton McGuinty’s special adviser on full-day kindergarten, Charles Pascal, had his report unveiled last spring, he insisted his plan would allow parents to choose whether to send their four and five-year-olds off for a full day or not.
“Children’s participation would be by parental choice, with parents having the option of a half, full (school hours), or a fee-based extended day of programming,” reads one of the recommendations in Pascal’s report, released late last spring. The government itself calls the full-day program “optional.”
But, like that earlier sexy and costly education plan — smaller primary classes — this is not rolling out exactly as advertised.
My guess is the government is banking on the majority of “lucky few” parents being so ecstatic about the prospect of lower daycare fees or a few more hours to themselves, the applause will cancel out any minority report squawks.
Parents in the neighbourhoods chosen for phase one of the program — capturing about 15% of kindergarten-age students next year — will gradually learn their options are more theoretical than real.
“Schools that have been selected this year will only offer a full-day program for 4 & 5 year olds (so there will no longer be any half-day programs at these schools),” the education ministry wrote me in an e-mail last week.
This is not surprising. The government (and any that follow after 2011) has already signalled in its staffing and early decisions on full-day kindergarten that it's not following Pascal's recommendations to a tee. We have the teacher / ECE decision from earlier in the fall, and in the accompanying memo that went out to school boards Jan. 13 from the early learning deputy minister (which I have a copy of and will post here later on Monday), the first details to boards of how to handle things like fee subsidies, etc. for the childcare components. FYI, boards were given a formula for the before- and after-school fees for the kindergarten students-- most of which will fall in the range of $20-40 a day.
Pascal's vision of options may not be feasible from an implementation perspective. With declining birth and fertility rates across most of the province, having full-day and half-day streams in place at every Ontario school would be a nightmare to implement-- a point MacDonald concedes but ultimately said wouldn't make that much more of a difference given other high-cost options already chosen by the government. I don't buy the generalization the kids can't handle it-- one MacDonald makes in assuming a tradition of half-day, every day kindergarten-- simply not a tradition that is in place at every school and in every board. There are some kids who may never do well in a full-day, every day program, just as there are plenty already thriving in full-day programs that won't be that different from what's coming to every school.
Where I agree with MacDonald however is in flexibility. This program will not play as well (perhaps a nod to Blizzard's comment) in some parts of the province as it will in others. It's likely that some parents who may have been willing to put their son/daughter in kindergarten for a half-day (or full-day, alternate days) program won't be willing when it comes to a full-day, every day. School boards -- and more specifically schools -- should be allowed the flexibility to permit a family to make that decision without losing grant. So while running to parallel programs is something that shouldn't happen, local flexibility will allow boards to address local needs.
All that being said, it really also depends on what other options are available out there. Four- and five-year-old childcare programming is one of the industry's few profit centres. If some providers find a way to offer alternate programs (half-day, etc.) that meet a need full-day kindergarten doesn't, some might find a market for it in the right community. Chances are that most parents who don't register their children today for whatever form of kindergarten they have access to still won't after it goes full-day. Why bother chasing this crowd or playing to them?


RetDir said...

The take-up rate on the program is difficult to predict. It is true that a school offering full-day kindergarten has to make it available to all of the students who go to the school. However, just because a student is enrolled in the full-day program doesn't mean that they have to, or will, attend full-day, or every day. Kindergarten attendance isn't compulsory, so I'm guessing that parents (particularly of the 3.8 year olds starting JK) will create their own flexibility in this regard, if their personal circumstances allow for it. And while it is true that 4 and 5 year olds are currently a profit centre for daycare operators, it's hard to know how that can continue in the face of free alternatives.
And there is a theory that this may be the first step in a probably long road to bring all childcare under school boards - 0 - 18.

Education Reporter said...

"And while it is true that 4 and 5 year olds are currently a profit centre for daycare operators, it's hard to know how that can continue in the face of free alternatives."

Well, they won't be free-- not for full days anyway. Before- and after-school care will still be offered at a cost. Just not the same cost as a full day at a childcare centre.

Further, I hate to pull this card, but the school-day portion of the program isn't free either. I have a tax return to prove it. :)


Anonymous said...

There's two myths I think we need to put to bed.

1) that any service provided by the government is free. As ER stated in his previous post taxpayers end up paying.


2) that just because a government hires an "expert" to come up with recommendations, and after the MOE bureaucrats slice and dice it, recommendations and reports almost never end up looking anything at all like the originally intended initiative.

I had occasion to speak with a Kindergarten teacher on the weekend who told me that their school was chosen to be a pilot program for the ELP, employs 3 staff for less than 24 children this year. However just because this was a pilot school didn't mean that the board would have selected it to implement the program. So parents who were counting on the program next year are SOL. Municipality didn't see that coming, however it was clear to me when both my local public and Catholic boards issued press releases in November that parents shouldn't get their hopes up about this program.
I was also reminded by a former OSSTF exec. board rep. that McGuinty's not stupid that, of course this is an initiative that's bound to be more popular in larger, urban centres than in small towns or rural communities because that's where the votes are going to come from next provincial election. I suppose there will always be THAT political conspiracy.
We still don't know how the government intends to pay for this. Waiting for the other shoe to fall...and it will eventually I'm sure.


HBO said...

Will the kids be learning any more with full-time schooling than what they currently do? On average, are they able to learn more at the ages of 3-5 than what they do now? Where does that leave the child, that did not attend optional JK or SK, when it's time to start Grade 1?

I've not been following this closely because my youngest is in SK now and will not be affected. All three of my children learned what they needed to and more (I think - sometimes the report card is difficult to understand) attending every other day, all day, in JK and SK. They are a bit above average in their schoolwork and I realize that this is not the case with every child. I am also at home with them so daycare is not a concern, fortunately.

What is this program supposed to accomplish?

I am also concerned about RetDir's comment that all childcare will fall under the jurisdiction of the school board. I've seen a similar comment on another site (Crux) stating that this program should start as soon as the kids are out of diapers.

Anonymous said...

I can speak only from my parent perspective HBO and what I've learned as I experienced school along with my two.

Whether a child learns more or less as a result of more or less school time really isn't something that's easy to answer. Teacher quality can make the biggest difference. Good teachers can get as much done in a half-day as in a full-day, the reverse is true for a not-so-great teacher.

I think that boards that are sensitive to parents and the role the parent plays in a child's world before they get to school were very cautious on how they rolled out the ELP because I don't believe the real cost of the program in dollars and cents will be known yet.

Just as children enter Kindergarten with varying degrees of preparation, same would apply for an early program.

Believe me HBO there are municipalities and even some boards who are concerned that childcare will come under the board's umbrella. Perhaps it's a move to split the financial burden of boards & municipalities.

Could be the gov't hasn't thought that far ahead too.

I can conclude by saying that this is a choice made by parents and you're asking exactly the kind of questions parents should ask.

You are the best judge of what's right for your family and your child.


RetDir said...

I fully understand the point about taxes - perhaps 'shared' encompasses it better than free. And if before and after care is too expensive for parents (because of the cost-recovery component), it may be that some parents will choose to leave their children in daycare, which might mitigate the impact on daycares.
I'm not a fan of bringing daycare into the education umbrella - it's a pretty crowded space already, with lots of leaks. It's just a possibility.

Education Reporter said...

CC and HBO:

I intend to post the memo to boards in the body of the main post soon that has some of these answers-- ie: the role of municipalities, etc.

Pascal's report did speak to a birth-to-age-12 approach. This is one component the government has chosen to implement first.

The ministry is insisting all ELP program that happens in a school building be managed and run by the boards. This will impact many childcare providers as a result.


Anonymous said...

with regard to before and after school programs I believe that different areas of the province could tweek these to suit their demographics.

I know for example that in Peel parents can get a tax receipt for what they pay for the program and in order to run such a program the staff didn't necessarily have to be ECE but could also have equivalent degrees/diplomas etc. and Peel provided many opportunities for upgrading things like First Aid and programming skills.

It works well where there's a established need, many families where two parents work. It was seen as the alternative to having kids go home to an empty house.

Peel's model was the first of its kind in Ontario, was picked up by other large-urban boards and now by this program.

I worked as a program supervisor at the Peel program and loved every minute of it because it was flexible and made use of the school after hours and on PD days when programs ran.


Education Reporter said...

FYI the memo is linked within the post.

CC— Parents can get a tax receipt for any program their children attend, no? In my camping life, this was always a busy time as we reprinted receipts for camp fees...


Anonymous said...

This iniative may turn out to be a huge boondoggle, just like class sizes are. Check out this report I found on School For Thought that looks at Project Head Start. Seems that it didn't do anything to improve things but cost billions.