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Not-for-profit childcare best investment

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Manitoba public policy distinguishes between commercial and not-for-profit childcare centres. Megan Turner (Give parents choice in childcare, June 5) claims these policies reduce parent choice. As the new owner of a for-profit childcare centre, Turner objects to funding rules and calls for changes.

Most expert observers recommend against treating commercial and not-for-profit operations symmetrically. There are reasons for this.

First, important fiscal and legal differences exist between for-profit and not-for-profit childcare centres. A commercial childcare owner accumulates assets that she owns. A building bought and renovated for a childcare program, for example, can one day be sold and the money from the sale stays in the owner's pocket. When the secure revenue stream that enabled that purchase came from provincial operating funds and fee subsidies, the investment by taxpayers disappears.

In contrast, not-for-profit childcare programs that close down must redistribute their assets to other not-for-profit organizations, keeping taxpayers' dollars working for the general good. Profit-making childcare centres conveniently overlook these drastically different financial implications when they boast that they meet the same provincial regulations as not-for-profit programs, and thus should be treated the same. Prudent governments do not let public dollars drain away into privately owned corporations

A second reason for treating commercial and for-profit childcare differently relates to quality. Social scientists consistently find a quality advantage in not-for-profit programs. As a labour-intensive service, the main item in a childcare-program's budget is wages for early-childhood educators. Comparative studies show that, as a sector, commercial childcare pays poorer wages, has higher turnover, and employs the minimum -- rather than the maximum -- number of trained staff. While all centres must follow licensing regulations, non-profit centres are more likely than for-profit centres to exceed, rather than simply meet ratios.

We see quality differences between for-profit and not-for-profit childcare even in Québec. At the outstanding and unsatisfactory ends of the quality continuum, the distribution between for-profit and non-profit programs is striking. In Quebec, as elsewhere, although there are good and poor quality programs in both categories, the pattern is remarkable.

Québec's Grandir en qualité study found that non-profit infant programs were six times more likely than for-profit programs to offer high-quality care and non-profit preschool programs were four times more likely than for-profit centres to be among the best programs. In contrast, for-profit centres were vastly over-represented among programs that provided unsatisfactory care. For-profit infant centres were more than eight times more likely than non-profit centres to provide unsatisfactory quality. For-profit preschool programs were six times more likely than non-profits to provide unsatisfactory care.

Moreover, comparative research shows that in jurisdictions where commercial childcare owners provide a high degree of childcare, public regulations tend to be lower. Thus, in general, quality is higher in not-for-profit childcare. This is why the experts at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommend the "protective mechanism" of providing public money only to public and non-profit services. An evidence-based approach to childcare policy must acknowledge these quality differences.

The final reason for treating commercial and not-for-profit childcare differently relates to politics. Business owners have an interest in seeing regulations reduced so they can maximize profits. Businesses lobby to change provincial regulations, proposing shifts in their favour.

In recent years, the number of for-profit centres across the country has jumped sharply: today, close to 30 percent of spaces in Canada are for-profit. In Manitoba, just five per cent of our spaces are commercial. Yet, at least four new for-profit childcare centres have opened in Manitoba since 2011. You don't think these new players are going to try to change the rules of the game? Just read their lips -- or check out their op-eds.

When childcare entrepreneurs ask, as Megan Turner does, "are we pro-business or not," the evidence-based answer is clear. Manitobans should insist on maintaining our fair, fiscally prudent and quality-promoting rules for childcare.


Susan Prentice is a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Child Care Coalition of Manitoba

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2014 0

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