A recent provincial report which recommends the province fix Manitoba’s childcare system through ‘market stewardship’ is just more of what got us into this mess, says one childcare expert.
“In a way it’s just a new rhetorical package for an old reality,” said Susan Prentice, a childcare researcher from the University of Manitoba.
The report’s writers seem to be ignorant of existing legislation that could help rural families, and lack imagination, she added.
On April 12, the province released the Early Learning and Childcare Transformation report, prepared by advisory firm KPMG.
The report acknowledges that childcare is unevenly distributed across Manitoba, with availability in rural areas just over half of urban areas, and even less in the north.
It notes that “the availability of childcare that is flexible, occasional, and outside of normal business hours is important to many parents, particularly those who may be offered occasional work,” but says this kind of care is hard to find and may limit parents’ ability to work.
Farming parents have told the Co-operator that they struggle to find childcare that extends beyond regular business hours, or to find care for kids when they have a short-notice task like hauling grain to the elevator.
The report added that low-income families were more likely to be affected by low access to flexible care.
KPMG wrote that more than a quarter of childcare centres operated at a deficit, which makes them less able to increase pay and retain workers, less likely to expand services.
Manitoba is also perceived as unfriendly to starting small businesses, the report says, which may make new daycares less likely.
A ‘market steward’
The report gives 10 recommendations to the province, which centre around making the province a “market steward” of the early-learning and childcare system.
It defines this as a system that understands and monitors the demand for childcare, monitors the supply of childcare, and designs and implements mechanisms that will drive desired ‘behaviour’ (e.g. startup of new providers in areas without centres, more diverse services).
It recommends a “parent-based” funding model, which would move away from the current operating grant structure toward more assistance for families. This would also involve raising parent fees.
The KPMG report essentially suggests the province carry on with its market-directed approach, said Prentice. Manitoba already oversees the childcare system without much control, she said. It licenses and funds facilities but does little to plan where the next childcare centre goes.
Prentice said the province needs to take a much more active role than KPMG suggests. International research has shown that successful systems require an aspect of public delivery, she said.
When new neighbourhoods pop up, it’s someone’s job to notice that the area needs a school, she said. No one does this for childcare.
More funding needed
The report also seems ignorant of existing policy that would provide greater operating grants for centres that provide extended-hours childcare, said Prentice.
Manitoba’s childcare regulations say the province may, when calculating startup and operating grants, pay up to 1-1/2 times the facility’s licensed number of spaces if the centre is providing extended-hours childcare. Prentice found no acknowledgment of this in the report.
“The funding model exists. The dollars just need to be provided,” Prentice said.
As it stands, greater parental funding may be less likely to help rural families.
Rural families are more likely to access childcare provided in home-based centres, said Prentice. About one-third of existing home-based centres don’t take provincial operating grants, said Prentice. This means they don’t have to respect the government’s fee schedule but can charge whatever the market will bear.
Low-income families also can’t use subsidies at centres that don’t take provincial funding, said Prentice.
However, it’s not clear which recommendations the province intends to implement.
While it is committed to modernizing the childcare system, the KPMG report is “only one piece of information that will be used to develop a better system for Manitoba,” the province said in a news release April 12.
Parent fees will stay as they are for the next three years to support an economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, said families minister, Rochelle Squires in the same release.
On April 13, Squires told reporters a pandemic is a bad time to overhaul the funding model, says a CBC report.
“I’m going to be consulting over the next three years,” Squires told CBC. “We’ve got enough time to really hear what some of the solutions and options are to be creating an accessible childcare system.”
In its 2021 budget, the province promised $1.6 million to fund 541 new childcare spaces — 392 of which opened in 2020.
This doesn’t appear to include increasing operating grants, which would make it the fifth year of frozen operating funds, said Prentice.