NIKKI JAMIESON: Nova Scotia’s transformational framework, grounded in research

The plan we are seeing in Nova Scotia right now is positioning us for a truly historic and revolutionary change in the way we manage, fund, deliver, and view child care in the province. In a recent announcement, we were informed that Nova Scotia is ahead of target and an immediate reduction on the average of 25% would be retroactively made to families with children in care. The direct impact and benefit it will have for families is unquestionable. We are building the foundation for a comprehensive, evidence based, transformational system and owe our deepest gratitude to activists, ECEs, and community members who have been tirelessly advocating for these changes for decades.

The  framework proposed by government aligns with the evidence. It is transformative and well overdue to be shifting from viewing child care as a commodity, provided by private business, sold as just another service, and instead as a public good.

A key component of system building as outlined in the Child Care Now Roadmap to Affordable Child Care for All is a fundamental shift in the way that regulated child care centres are funded and managed. In an Open letter of recommendations for ELCC published in June of 2021, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia recommended that parent fees should be collected centrally by government; The Child Care Now Roadmap suggested that the responsibility of planning and managing the supply of regulated ELCC should be assumed by provincial/territorial governments alongside fee collection; in a survey targeted at Early Childhood Educators in the Nova Scotia conducted in 2019 the final recommendation was to roll funding into a comprehensive plan for a system that is centrally organized and public, much like our education system; and Recommendation 13 of the Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia suggests that efforts be made to fund a high quality, early learning and child care system that is not for profit and publicly managed. The evidence is clear, we must move towards a centrally organized model of management and delivery of ELCC in Nova Scotia. We are optimistic and appreciative that Nova Scotia is the first province in Canada to commit to and provide a framework for adopting this model, and look forward to helping shape the role of this central organization, together.

Also recognized as an essential element of transforming ELCC, we have consistently recommended that to protect the transformed child care system, expansion of publicly funded ELCC must be limited to public and non-profit services. Research consistently shows us that no matter what markers are used to assess quality, there remain significant differences between for-profit and not-for-profit child care. For-profit child care drives down government regulations, ELCC wages and compensation, and quality standards; have significantly lower staff wages and credentials; and are less likely to continue to choose ELCC as a career option. One of the largest differences being that 62% of ECEs in the non-profit sector reported having regularly scheduled time to prepare lessons, contrasting to only 35% of those in the for-profit sector. It is important to look at the research when determining what we ought or ought not consider as we determine what is best for educators, families, and communities in Nova Scotia. A study done by Friendly et al. reminds us that non-profits invariably are rated better when it comes to wages, benefits, working conditions, staff turnover, morale, satisfaction and education levels. We have reminded government time and time again that we must move to a not-for-profit model; another important move they’ve committed to here in Nova Scotia.

Though, building a quality system is a monumental undertaking. As outlined in the Roadmap to Affordable Child Care for All, considerations and controls must be in place to provide ongoing quality checks, system corrections, and mechanisms for improvement both throughout development, and on an ongoing basis. A system with a centrally organized model and massive public expenditure requires ongoing public accountability and transparency; a model emphasized in the Social Policy Framework for Nova Scotia, that references communities meaningful, inclusive, and effective participation as an essential component. Embedding public governance means the cost, quality, location, accessibility, and comprehensiveness of services will be determined through political processes, not by the whims of the market. This step is critical to holistic system building, and we hope that the government will heed the Auditor General’s assessment and reflect on the lessons from the pre-primary rollout. The report mirrored our calls and warned government that they must have markers in place to regularly report and adjust, a process to evaluate, and ensure regular communication and transparency. As outlined above, we support the central agency and know it will play a critical role, but there is unfortunately a lack of information around the timeline or how stakeholders will have meaningful input. We look forward to working with government to ensure this agency  establishes effective communications and meaningful democratic input.

Another component notably missing in the current update is acknowledgement of ECEs working conditions and the critical state that the sector has been in for years. Part of the bilateral agreement promises a strategy to improve workforce concerns like wages and benefits, yet the details of this effort remain vague and unclear. Government must be committed to addressing the gaps in the wage framework of our educators, and ensure a coherent, comprehensive, and fair benefit package and compensation plan is communicated. Early childhood educators’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions, and without ECEs, there are no additional spaces. We must ensure transparency on the wage promises, access to benefits, and support ECEs and providers through this important transformation.

Families are desperate for space. The 1500 additional spaces is good news; but there is a lack of transparency and baseline data. How many spaces are there currently? How many have been lost during the pandemic? Families also need child care to be more affordable and thus the 25% reduction is very important; but details are lacking including about equity based considerations on the implementation. So while we’re hearing about 1500 new spaces, we remain skeptical of where they are going and how they will be resourced. We’re being promised information on the workforce strategy and compensation package, but when asked about this the response has unequivocally been, ‘we are working on it.’ In order to maintain public support and ensure mechanisms for success are built into this plan, critical, ongoing, and meaningful input are required parallel to effective communication and transparency. Government must be more forthcoming. 

We are on the cusp of child care being viewed as a public good alongside healthcare, and public education in Nova Scotia. It is critically important that we work together to guarantee we continue to take an evidence based approach, rooted in producing a truly universal, comprehensive, affordable, accessible, inclusive, publicly funded, quality, non-profit child care system.

Nikki Jamieson is the Coordinator of the Nova Scotia chapter of Child Care Now