How to Fix Manitoba’s Daycare Problems

Commentary, Education, Peter Shawn Taylor

Paul Feldvari is an endangered species. He operates one of the last remaining commercial child care centres in the province. Despite his rarity, however, Feldvari’s 53-space Double Trouble Daycare in Winnipeg’s Seven Oaks neighbourhood provides a valuable service to the families who use his centre. So why does the provincial government wish he would go away?

It is the unstated long-term goal of the Doer government to make the provincial daycare system exclusively non-profit. Ten years ago, for-profit centres accounted for 13 percent of the spaces in Manitoba. Today, it’s five percent.

This policy of gradual extinction has been accomplished by denying for-profit centres access to the vast bulk of the $116 million the provincial government plans to spend on child care subsidies and grants this year. All non-profit centres in the province can receive operating grants worth up to $8,300 per year per space. As a for-profit operator, Feldvari is not even allowed to apply.

He is also denied access to a wide variety of other subsidies and grants the province makes available to non-profit centres. While children in after-school care at neighbouring non-profit centres receive free bus transportation, Feldvari’s parents have to pay extra for this privilege.

Last year the province announced plans to open 6,500 new daycare spaces by 2013. This goal will be made more difficult by the slow, deliberate death of the commercial child care sector. What entrepreneur would dream of opening a new daycare facing such a discriminatory funding regime?

Evidence from other provinces shows commercial child care centres are a crucial factor in improving access to daycare while reducing the burden on taxpayers. Entrepreneurial operators such as Feldvari are much quicker to open new spaces than charitable non-profits. And provinces that welcome for-profit centres are able to open new licensed child care spaces at a lower cost to taxpayers than provinces that discriminate.

Alberta has been able to roll out more than 6,500 new spaces in just one year by providing subsidies and grants equally to both for-profit and non-profit facilities.

Not only will the existing funding inequity make it harder for the province to meet its goal, it does a disservice to hard-working daycare owners such as Feldvari and the parents who use his services. As a daycare-owner, he actually earns less than most administrators working in non-profit daycares. He relies on an art studio he owns to help pay his bills; the daycare is a labour of love. And is efforts often put his non-profit competition to shame.

Feldvari explains how he accepted an autistic girl after she was removed from a non-profit centre. “I fought for a year to get special provincial funding for her,” he says. “And until I did, I paid for the extra help out of my own pocket.” It isn’t the only time he’s taken in children with special needs who have been refused a place at non-profit centres.

Such an attitude seems entirely at odds with the myth of the for-profit daycare owner as a cold, calculating number-cruncher. “The purpose of this daycare is to provide a service – quality daycare,” Feldvari says. “And there is a huge need in Manitoba for it.”

Given Feldvari’s caring attitude, and the constant complaints that parents in Manitoba face massive waiting lists for licensed child care, it seems plain that discriminating against for-profit daycare operators has been a big policy mistake.

It is also the case that complaints from advocacy groups that for-profit daycares sacrifice child care 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.

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. The Doer government’s plan to turn Manitoba’s daycare industry entirely non-profit is an ideological move unsupported by logic or evidence.

“If I had access to all the available government funding, I’d open 10 daycares within two years,” Feldvari says boldly. “As a private centre I can provide as good or better care than the non-profits and with better accessibility.” If Doer wants to reach his goal of 6,500 new daycare spaces, he should be paying attention.