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

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

  1. Be careful with asking folks to pay if they have the means. Once they start they will continue to pay by placing their children in private schools to get a solid return of value. Then the public system will lose the child and the money associated with having a student.

    Instead go for the value of an enriched childhood. Then everyone shares in the reward.

  2. What if kindergarten allows for second parent to find a work and pay taxes, instead of staying home because it is cheaper than taking kids to daycare?

  3. I’m born and raised in Holland and emigrated to Canada in 1995 when our youngest child was 9 years old. In Holland there’s full-day kindergarten from the day a kid becomes 4 years old and it is mandatory from the age of 5.
    Education is free in the Netherlands and it should also be free in Canada. It is best when you start educating kids as young as possible, it is in the best interest of the children, the parents and society as a whole.

  4. The error in your thesis is that you think that day care and kindergarten equate for child development…better do better research on value to children rather than $.and economic development…
    Money is only money and is wasted by many with ease …children are the future-even the penny has lost its worth!

  5. This has got to be one of the most ignorant articles I’ve ever read! Many kids benefit from full day kindergarten, not just those from low income families. Those with English as a second language benefit from being immersed in a full day kindergarten program. Many other kids build social skills that they otherwise wouldn’t get in half day programs. To say kindergarten is a glorified child care alternative is a slap in the face to any self respecting kindergarten teacher! My son’s kindergarten program had them working on computers and doing homework! By making some parents pay more “if they have the money” is absolutely ridiculous! The public system exists for all children, regardless of income!

  6. Be careful how you report on studies. Some short term examinations of full day kindergarten show a fade out in academic gains but social and self-regulatory advances remain. As Nobel winning economist James Heckman reports, It is these ‘soft’ skills that underpin not only a child’s academic success but her ability to go onto post-secondary schooling, to engage successfully in the workplace, even to form mature intimate relationships. Rather than taking away from the rest of education, the playful, exploratory approach to learning that produces such promising results in K is causing educators in later grades to look at their ‘drill and kill’ styles which extinguish children’s natural exuberance to learn.

  7. We pay enough taxes in this country. Suggesting that parents pay for full-day kindergarten in the public school system is ludicrous. It’s so frustrating for parents to have mandated 1/2 day kindergarten with no solution (paid or unpaid) for the rest of the day. I’m lucky enough to work part-time from home, so the 1/2 day kindergarten year is no big deal for us, but for many of my friends who work full-time, it’s an awful year. When their kids are 1-4 it’s easy because their kids are in daycare full-time. Come kindergarten, you have to find a daycare willing to take your child for 1/2 the day (most people I know pay full-time fees because that’s the only way any place will take them) AND find someone has to take your kid to or from school, unless you’re lucky enough to have a school with a daycare or happen to qualify for bussing. I know parents who leave work to bring their kids from daycare to school (or vice versa) every day, or grandparents that do it, or neighbours…it’s a gong show. Governments have been talking about improving childcare programs in Canada for as long as I can remember and nothing’s changed. They also benefit from the additional taxes collected from families with two incomes. Providing full-day kindergarten is at least a logical, practical thing to do which in turn provides some relief to the overcrowded childcare system.