Quebec's bargain day care a hit with parents, educators

Ten hours of high-quality day care for $5 - or US$3 - a day, no matter how much you earn.

That's the bottom line for parents in a bold initiative by the Quebec government intended to help them balance work and family life - and to invest in the futures of young children.

"It's the single biggest change a government has ever made in my life," says Franois Lapalme, at the Kateri I Early Childhood Center here to pick up his son, Jrmy. Mr. Lapalme, a trader for Scotiabank, adds, "The $5-a-day program has made a huge difference - I used to pay $500 a month, and now it's $125."

At a time when "throwing money at problems" has largely fallen out of favor across the ideological spectrum, Quebec has just about doubled day-care spending.

The program, just now being fully phased in to cover children two and under, has won acclaim and envy from parents, educators, and economists across this country.

"The government of Quebec has chosen a direction that our research is pointing to," says Jocelyne Tougas, one of the five authors of a newly released study of child care in Canada, called "You Bet I Care," conducted under the aegis of the Centre for Families, Work, and Well-Being at the University of Guelph, in Ontario.

"I'm in touch with many groups across Canada," says Nicole Boily, president of the Consultative Council for Family and Child Welfare in Quebec City. "And when they find out what we have in Quebec, they all want to have it where they are, too."

Teachers' pay increases

Perhaps one of the most radical elements of the policy has been the decision to raise the pay of day-care teachers by 35 to 40 percent. This move, coming at a time when the average day-care teacher earns only slightly more than the average parking-lot attendant (C$22,717 vs. $21,038), has drawn particular praise from the authors of the Guelph study.

"All of a sudden a career that was a dead-end career is much more attractive," says Ms. Tougas, a child-care consultant in Quebec City. The new pay scale has had an "immediate" effect in drawing young people into this field, she adds.

The whole program has been wildly popular with parents, even here in this affluent suburb across the St. Lawrence from Montreal. A day-care construction boom of sorts is on as the government scrambles to make places available to parents. At the newly opened Kateri II, a stone's throw from Kateri I, the not-yet-paved parking lot is all mud puddles on this gray and rainy day. The playground is not yet outfitted. Inside, everything smells brand new. But the center is already full.

"If tomorrow we could open a third center, it would be full right away, too," says Patrick Gingras, the manager.

He points out numerous details incorporated into the center's design: rounded corners on counters; little pullout stairsteps for the children to use to climb up to sinks; internal windows between classrooms so that teachers can keep an eye on one another's classes. For each child, a detailed log is maintained, either on loose sheets or in a special spiralbound notebook. Notes are made of everything about each child's day from how much he eats and sleeps to his mood - to the mt de son coeur, the weather of his heart.

Not the most progressive, but close

Quebec's day-care policy is not as far advanced as programs in Scandinavia, Ms. Boily says. But she calls it comparable to, or ahead of, much of what is available elsewhere in Europe - Britain, for instance. A key point she stresses: In Quebec the day-care centers are run by boards made up of parents. "So it's parents, and not the state, having the final say.

"We know that intervening in early childhood is a good investment," says Stphane Perrault, spokesman in the family ministry. "It pays off in the end."

Nicole Lger, junior minister in the family ministry, says, "Society has an interest in investing in the young child. When we invest in early childhood, it's better for us than to pay [for remediation] when the child is 9 or 10 years old." She adds, "We're getting people off welfare. And our family policies put Quebec in the forefront of progressive societies."

An internal study by the Ministry of Social Welfare has found that, since the new family policy - including $5 day care - was introduced in 1997, the numbers of young mothers coming off welfare has increased by 37 percent.

The government is increasing day-care slots at a clip of 16,000 a year - up from 2,000 to 2,500 a year before 1997. The ranks of day-care teachers have expanded by 6,000 so far and are to gain another 6,000 by 2005, says Mr. Perrault.

Quebec currently has about 450,000 children four years old and under, with structured day-care places to serve about 120,000 of them; another 20,000 to 40,000 children are in school-based kindergartens. The goal is to have 200,000 day-care places by 2005 or 2006. The $5 care program includes after-school care for older children. And because it is such a bargain, it has wooed many parents out of informal arrangements with untrained neighbors and relatives.

Among the few critics of $5 day care has been the Institute for Research on Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Montreal. In a study conducted just after the new policy was introduced, it calculated that 72 percent of Quebec families received less in financial assistance from the province than before - because family allowances have been retargeted to the working poor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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