Child Care Is a Public Good

children playing at a table

November 22 2023

There is a long-running debate about the delivery model for early learning and child care in Canada. A recent Financial Post article by Matthew Lau took aim at “progressives,” whether in government or in the labour movement, who support public and non-profit child care. Lau specifically took issue with our stance.

NUPGE has long called for a child care system that is universally accessible, publicly funded and delivered, not-for-profit, inclusive and high quality.

It is helpful to understand the current landscape in Canada. Most child care in Canada is provided by non-profit entities, whether in child care centres or family child care. These may be run by non-profit organizations, charities, or co-ops. But there is considerable variation across provinces and territories, and so there are some jurisdictions where for-profit child care is the major provider. Both non-profit and for-profit child care are part of the private sector. Overall, public child care, whether run by a municipality, school board, or Indigenous governance organization, makes up a small portion across Canada.

NUPGE has called for investments in both public and non-profit child care, but we would like to see the continued expansion in the public sector, in particular. There is abundant evidence that public and non-profit child care are more likely to be of higher quality than for-profit child care. In other OECD countries that have moved to more publicly funded, owned, and managed child care, those systems are more reliable and equitable too.

When we talk about for-profit child care, our primary concern is the increasing presence of corporate child care in Canada. There has been a trend towards chains, known as “big-box” child care, and international private-equity corporations increasingly entering the market. Lessons from other countries and other care sectors show that we should be wary.

Research shows that for-profit child care is less likely to be affordable, accessible, equitable and high quality. For-profit child care has been shown to be linked to poorer quality. This does not mean that all for-profit providers are bad or don’t care about the work they do. But for-profit businesses are required, by their very structure, to prioritize profits in order to survive. This means that the quality of the service can be sacrificed in order to make a profit.

While we don’t suggest that all for-profit child care is low quality (or, conversely, that all public or non-profit child care is high quality), decades of research in Canada and internationally consistently shows a relationship between quality and how child care is owned and operated. There are numerous factors, but many staffing-related ones—wages, working conditions, training, etc.—are positively linked to program quality. In other words, qualified, well-supported educators and staff are integral to high-quality child care.

Staffing tends to make up a large portion of child care expenses, and so for-profit providers may cut back on investing in the staffing that is so core to quality. When we are talking about children’s development, safety, and well-being, profit should not be the priority.

The language of “parental choice,” which often crops up in these debates, is a misnomer. As it stands, most families in Canada don’t have a true choice when it comes to accessing child care, whether that is because of cost, or they are stuck on wait-lists, or there is little access in their community. A more public, universally accessible child care system wouldn’t mean that every family needs to access public child care. But they would actually have a choice.

It is for these reasons that NUPGE has advocated for the federal government to show leadership and ensure that federal funds are flowing to expand child care in the public and non-profit sectors. We believe that public money shouldn’t be going towards profits, but towards building a not-for-profit, increasingly public system that will improve access, affordability and quality. Many of our allies in the child care movement and child care experts are calling for the same.

NUPGE believes that child care is a public good, and so it should be treated as a public service. The so-called market model for child care in Canada, to date, has not adequately worked.

We are in a landmark moment of building a Canada-wide child care system. This is the first new national social program since medicare. We know that building a universal system won’t happen overnight. But we believe that the federal government, working with its provincial, territorial, and Indigenous partners, has a responsibility to facilitate building a cohesive system.

We believe early learning and child care should be a high-quality public system, accessible and inclusive to all—one that we can be proud of.