TORONTO — Parents across Ontario would be able to access free licensed care for their preschool children in two years under a $2.2-billion Liberal government plan that some critics said was a ploy to grab votes in the spring election, while others argued it didn’t go far enough.
The program was announced by Premier Kathleen Wynne on the eve of a budget that will put the province back into deficit.
The initiative, starting in 2020, would fund the cost of full-day, licensed child care starting once children turn two-and-a-half and continue to cover their care costs until they become eligible for full-day kindergarten.
“No more anxiety about costs … The freedom to choose when it’s time for mom or dad to go back to work. This is a big change,” Wynne said as she made the announcement at a school in Toronto. ”We’re playing the long game here, folks. This is the investment in the people of this province.”
In Ontario, kids are eligible for junior kindergarten in the calendar year they turn four, and senior kindergarten the year they turn five.
The government estimates that by the time the system is fully implemented in 2023-2024, an additional 125,000 children will be able to enrol in the free daycare program, bringing the total number of children up to age four in licensed child care to more than 283,000.
The initiative is expected to save families $17,000 a year, the Liberals said.
The government decided to have the program cater to kids two-and-a-half and older based on demand for services, Wynne said.
“It’s this age group where there’s the largest number of families who are looking for child care,” she said. “This the age group where there’s the real crunch and the bulk of people who are looking for child care, that’s why this is the age group we’re starting with.”
But critics said that leaves parents with children younger than two-and-a-half with little relief.
“This announcement does nothing for those women who are trying to get back to work after their parental leave,” said NDP leader Andrea Horwath. “You’ll have to ask Kathleen Wynne why she chose some families over others in terms of helping them with their childcare costs.”
Brooke Richardson, an instructor in Ryerson University’s early childhood education program, called the government announcement “welcome news” but also noted that the Liberal plan means many women hoping to find care for their young ones after a maternity leave ends won’t qualify.
“The big problem with that is that it’s much more expensive to provide care for younger children,” she said. “You have more staff that are needed and fewer children that are permitted in the room … we’re never going to address the wage gap if we don’t expand it to younger children.”
The Liberal government’s plan would also establish a new wage grid for early childhood educators, something Richardson is long overdue. Nearly a quarter of early childhood educators in Ontario make $15 or less and the grid could help bump up those wages and improve quality in the system as a result, she said.
“Sadly, too many qualified early childhood educators are leaving the field because their compensation levels are so low,” she said. “There’s a huge crisis in terms of recruiting and retaining qualified staff.”
News of the Liberal program drew mixed reactions from parents.
“My initial knee-jerk reaction is: Awesome! Free child care. That’s great. But then, after about five seconds, you have to go, ‘What’s the catch?’” said Eva Klein, who has two kids and a third on the way.
Klein said she has questions about availability, the tax implications for families and whether the present system can handle the likely pressure of additional kids.
“Do we really have the resources and the facilities to be able to handle a massive influx of children into the system?” she asked.
Jennifer Pinheiro, a mother of two, said she’s opposed to the plan. Pinheiro said her family helped her by looking after her eldest child and she put her younger child in daycare – paying $1,200 a month. Now, she said, she’s not happy her tax money could go toward other people’s child care.
“As a parent I chose to have kids, therefore I need to be responsible for how I managed my money and how my kids are taken care of,” she said. ”That’s why there’s so many different options for care.”
Tuesday’s announcement is the latest in a series of high-profile and big-ticket initiatives unveiled in the days leading up to the provincial budget.
The government pledged millions to expand its OHIP+ pharma-care program which currently covers drug costs for youth and will eventually extend to seniors as well. The province has also committed to extensive new funding for hospitals and mental health supports.
Progressive Conservative legislator Lisa MacLeod said the government is spending wildly to win votes ahead of the spring election.
“Kathleen Wynne … is pretending to be Oprah without the money Oprah has,” she said. “What are her motives? Will it ever really happen? They promised they weren’t going to run a deficit. Then weeks later they decided it was going to be at least $8 billion.”
Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford said the Tories understand that daycare is a “big issue,” but wouldn’t commit to funding the Liberal program if his party formed government.
The election is currently set for June 7.