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Voters love full-day kindergarten, but it’s lousy policy: Peter Shawn Taylor

Of course we love free child care, but families who can pay market rates should do so

Kindergarten class

Full-day kindergarten is a proven vote-getter, but does it produce better educational results? (woodleywonderworks)

Like a runny nose in a nursery, full-day kindergarten is spreading mercilessly.

In British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, five-year-olds now attend kindergarten all day long, instead of the traditional half-day. This coming September will see the final rollout of Ontario’s full-day kindergarten for both four- and five-year-olds. In its most recent budget, Newfoundland promised a full-day program for five-year-olds by 2016. And before she left office earlier this year, former Alberta premier Alison Redford promised it for her province too.

What explains this new mania for full-day kindergarten?

It certainly isn’t rigorous evidence that it aids learning. Ample academic research reveals any educational benefit typically disappears as early as the end of Grade 1. While some studies show high-needs (primarily low-income) children may demonstrate prolonged improvement due to the added attention and structure of the extra half-day, the vast majority of kids derive no pedagogical benefit whatsoever. “On average, the academic returns associated with full-day kindergarten are quite low or non-existent,” concludes one Canadian-authored study. Some analyses even show full-day kindergarten lowers behavioural and social outcomes, particularly for special-needs kids.

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It’s also very pricey. When Ontario asked Don Drummond, the respected former federal civil servant and bank economist, to review provincial expenditures in 2011, his most prominent recommendation was to scrap full-day kindergarten as “prohibitively expensive.” The total annual cost, including amortized capital expenditures on new classrooms, will be $1.5 billion once it’s fully operational. That’s a lot of money for a program that produces no long-term educational gains for most kids. And it robs the rest of the school system of valuable resources.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, however, full-day kindergarten is here to stay. And the reason is entirely political: Parents love full-day kindergarten, even if few kids truly benefit.

Publicly funded full-day kindergarten means parents no longer have to shell out for 10 months of child care for their five-year-olds (and, in Ontario, four-year-olds)—a major cost savings. In her recent winning election platform, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made this link between kindergarten and child care crystal clear for voters, boasting in her brochures that full-day kindergarten amounts to “$6,500 in daycare cost savings” for the average family.

But if full-day kindergarten is just another form of child care, then we ought to treat it as such: by charging families who can afford to pay.

“We have all this evidence that the academic benefits are limited to high-needs kids,” says education expert David Johnson, an economist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. “This means there’s a large component of child care in the current program. And why would we want to subsidize child care for all incomes?”

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Turning our provincial school systems into providers of universal free child care for well-to-do families is a perversion of good public policy. Besides, most child-care benefits in Canada are already means-tested, including municipally and provincially run child-care subsidy systems, as well as the federal government’s Universal Child Care Benefit. And while it may seem incongruous to charge for services in a public school, this is already the case with before- and after-school care in some provinces.

If we are truly stuck with full-day kindergarten, the next-best solution is to impose market-rate fees for families who can afford it. Johnson points out that a sliding scale would ensure high-needs, low-income families still have free access—since they’re the only ones likely to get any educational advantage from the program—while everyone else would pay a fair price for the child-care services they’re getting.

Full-day kindergarten is already a proven vote getter. We need to turn it into a money earner as well.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues