Staffing crucial to help solve child-care crisis
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Last week’s announcement by the federal and provincial governments to reduce child-care fees in Manitoba to $10 a day is an important first step in expanding access to early childhood learning.
An equally important followup by the province would be to significantly increase funding to recruit, retain and train child-care staff, as well as boost operating grants to child-care centres.
Under the new plan, announced Friday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Heather Stefanson, child-care fees will fall to a maximum of $10 a day for infants, preschool and school-aged children. That is a substantial reduction from the current $20.80 daily fee parents pay for preschool children and $30 for infants. It exceeds the original pledge by governments to set fees at an average of $10 a day by 2026.
The new policy is a shift for the Stefanson government. Until recently, the Tories resisted an across-the-board fee reduction. They opted instead to use child-care funding from Ottawa to expand subsidized spaces for low-income Manitobans, an approach that benefited too few families and became an administrative burden for child-care facilities.
The change of heart is a welcome one (even if it is during an election year). It was applauded by the Child Care Association of Manitoba, which has been calling for an across-the-board fee reduction for some time.
The new fee, which comes into effect April 2, was made possible through $1.2 billion in federal funding over five years for Manitoba child care. It will allow the province to increase operating grants to child-care centres equal to the loss in revenues from lower fees.
However, that will not be enough for regulated facilities to recruit and retain the staff they need to meet the growing demand for daycare across the province.
Child-care centres in Manitoba have been starved of funding under the Progressive Conservative government, which froze operating grants to facilities for multiple years, including when Ms. Stefanson was minister of families between 2018 and 2020. The impact of that continues to be felt today, as government-funded centres have been deprived of resources to adequately recruit and retain qualified staff.
A recent survey of Child Care Association of Manitoba members showed more than 30 per cent of facilities do not have the number of trained early childhood educators required under provincial regulations. Child-care workers have been undervalued and underpaid for years, resulting in high turnover rates and severe recruitment challenges.
The problem will likely get worse without sustainable funding from the province, as demand for daycare is expected to grow under the $10-a-day program.
Part of the problem, according to Lorraine McConnell, executive director of the Children’s Den daycare here in Brandon, wasn’t about what was in the government’s announcement, but rather what was left unsaid.
Reduced costs will be great for families, McConnell told the Sun, but there was no mention of any increase in wages for staff, who she insisted have been underpaid for years.
“Part of the bilateral agreement with the federal government was to get early childhood educators to a minimum of $25 an hour, so I was hoping that there would be an announcement of the next steps, or the steps being taken to get there.”
Early Childhood Learning Minister Wayne Ewasko said his government has a plan to train 1,000 child-care assistants and 2,000 early-childhood educators over the next three years, by boosting funding to post-secondary institutions.
While helpful, that alone will not solve the staffing shortage, nor reduce long wait times families endure to access child care. The province must substantially increase operating grants to allow centres to raise wages and expand capacity.
Reducing fees to $10 a day will go a long way toward making child care more affordable and accessible to Manitoba families. It will promote gender equity by allowing more women to enter the workforce, while providing children with important early-years learning opportunities.
Ensuring child-care centres are adequately funded to fully realize those goals will be critical in the years to come.
» Winnipeg Free Press and The Brandon Sun