Alberta Gets it Right on Daycare

Commentary, Education, Peter Shawn Taylor

When Kevin and Sue Preece decided to open a new daycare in Canmore, they had a decision to make. Should they run it as a non-profit or for-profit operation?

The couple was committed to providing quality child care in the under-serviced Bow Valley region of Alberta. With years of experience in Early Childhood Education, Sue Preece was familiar with all that was required. “We had the option of going either way,” she recalls. “But past experience convinced me for-profit was the way to go. As owner, I want to be accountable to parents.”

The Preeces were fortunate. And so were parents living in Canmore. For Alberta has not made daycare an ideological battlefield, as is the case in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Alberta has always treated for-profit and non-profit daycares in an equal fashion. The result is a much more responsive and entrepreneurial child care sector that better meets the needs of parents, children and taxpayers.

Last year the Preeces used a provincial grant to convert a former private school into Dragonfly Daycare, located in the Grotto Mountain Village area of Canmore. With 50 kids attending daily, they still have space for a few more. But without access to funding, Preece figures her operation would be half its current size, and local parents would be suffering from a lengthy waiting list.

Preece has also benefited from a variety of grants and subsidies provided by the province to recruit staff and improve quality. “Getting trained staff is a definite difficulty,” she says. A key factor in ensuring these programs translate quickly into new spaces is that they’re available to all licensed centres regardless of ownership type, unlike the situation in the other Prairie provinces.

Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan deny the commercial daycare sector access to most subsidies and grants. There is only one for-profit daycare in all of Saskatchewan. In Manitoba, they comprise only five percent of the total.

The predictable results are lengthy waiting lists and constant complaints from parents. Saskatchewan has the lowest level of child care coverage in the country. Manitoba suffers constant complaints about daycare shortages.

While no one would argue that Alberta’s daycare sector is entirely trouble-free, treating for-profit and non-profit child care centres equally has led to a much better outcome for everyone concerned. Alberta has a majority of for-profit centres.

Evidence from across the country shows that commercial child care centres are a crucial factor in improving access to daycare and reducing parental complaints about waiting lists. Over the past year, Alberta has been able to roll out more than 6,500 new spaces by providing subsidies and grants equally to both for-profit and non-profit facilities. The provincial goal of opening 14,000 new spaces in three years is already half complete after just one year.

It is also the case that Alberta is twice as efficient as Manitoba – and three times as efficient as Saskatchewan – at converting government subsidies into new licensed child care spaces. Thus taxpayers are also benefit from a fair child care funding policy.

Complaints from advocacy groups that for-profit daycares sacrifice quality are misplaced. Both for-profit and non-profit centres must meet exactly the same licensing, staffing and quality requirements. Where differences are identified, it is typically the result of unequal funding policies in other provinces. Alberta’s vaunted child care accreditation system, the first in Canada, wisely puts the emphasis on raising quality across the board, which benefits all children, regardless of whether they attend a non-profit or for-profit centre.

“For-profit and non-profit, we are both doing the same thing,” Preece observes. In fact, the only real difference is that non-profit centres must put a clumsy board of directors, rather than an owner, in charge. So for-profit status ensures the Preeces can move quickly to meet new demands or deal with issues that arise. To give parents have a voice in the operation of the centre, Preece created a parental focus group.

Most parents could care less about the ownership status of their daycare. What matters to them are the features they can see: cleanliness, cheerful and attentive staff, convenience and, most importantly, happy children. As the Preeces are proving, for-profit daycares can do this just as well as non-profit daycares. Only quicker. And at a lower cost to taxpayers.