Ontario Liberals promise free preschool for all in 2020, but is that realistic?

The Ontario Liberals have promised to offer free child care for pre-school children beginning in 2020 to help parents with affordability

Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals unveiled on Tuesday what is likely to be the central plank of their upcoming re-election campaign, announcing a plan to provide free childcare across Ontario, starting when a child turns 2.5 years old and ending at kindergarten.

The plan will take effect in 2020, Wynne promised during a stop at a local school in Toronto. More details are expected to be outlined in Wednesday’s provincial budget.

READ MORE: Ontario Liberals vow to offer free child care for pre-schoolers beginning in 2020

The Liberals did say, however, that their $2.2 billion in childcare spending will cover not only the cost of delivering free preschool care to every family that wants it, but also increase access to licensed child care, reduce or eliminate fee-subsidy waitlists, support the expansion of daycare spots and improve wages for early childhood education workers.

Here’s a look at some of the possible benefits, and some of the criticisms of the plan.

Every family has access

Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Child Care Now, said that Tuesday’s announcement represents the culmination of five decades of advocacy and that the province consulted “extensively” before rolling it out.

“This is how you make good government policy,” she said. “You study the issues, you collect the evidence, you consult the people.”

Ballantyne said the system is on its way to becoming truly universal, in that Ontario families in every income bracket will have access to the free care. That, she argued, will pay economic dividends, as more women are able to get back into the workforce, a position supported recently by the head of the Bank of Canada.

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Sweden, by comparison, has had a heavily subsidized childcare system for decades, but even it charges the richest families on a monthly basis (on average, the maximum is about CAD $300 a month, and preschool is free for four-year-olds and five-year-olds).

Quebec also relies on household income to determine the amount of daycare support a family receives. British Columbia plans to do the same.

READ MORE: Child-care costs in Canada rose faster than inflation in 2017

Asked why Ontario shouldn’t follow that model, Ballantyne said all children, regardless of economic status, need access to high-quality childcare.

“The only way to make sure that all children have access is to build a really good system, in the same way that we’ve built quality, accessible public education for kindergarten up,” she argued. “That’s what we need for the early years as well.”

Working on a deadline

According to Ballantyne, the almost two-year gap between the announcement and planned rollout should give Ontario’s system time to adapt. More staff will need to be trained (and paid at a higher rate) and the number of preschool places expanded to ensure that demand doesn’t completely outstrip supply, she said.

“One of the pitfalls that I think really needs to be avoided in Ontario, that unfortunately became a problem in Quebec, is too rapid of an expansion of the system,” Ballantyne noted.

“If the decision had been to try and expand infant, toddler and preschool and make it all free at once, then that would be asking too much to have all that in place in 2020.”

WATCH: Ontario family’s daycare increases cost after minimum wage hike

Spaces for children under 2.5 years old are still going to be subsidized to a certain extent, the Liberals noted Tuesday, in an effort to make them more affordable.

Still, the opposition NDP said that the plan leaves big “gaps” for Ontarians just finishing up their year-long parental leave who want to head back into the workforce.

A ‘Hail Mary’

It’s important to note that Tuesday’s promises may only become reality if the Liberals are re-elected come June 7, leading critics to label Wynne’s promise a transparent and desperate effort to secure votes.

“An 11th-hour Hail Mary announcement today, with money that (Wynne) doesn’t have, she’s going to run at least an $8 billion deficit, is going to be a problem,” said Progressive-Conservative finance critic Lisa MacLeod at Queen’s Park.

“I’ve heard from childcare operators in Ottawa today … telling me that their prices will have to go up for those (children) that are under two-and-a-half years old, or they will be put out of business.”

WATCH: Details of new paternity leave in 2018 federal budget

In addition, MacLeod said, the latest promise only means more money spent and bigger deficits to come.

The Liberals, who have recently faced questions about “bogus” accounting practices from the province’s auditor-general, have already increased the minimum wage, and promised to expand pharmacare coverage, reduce hospital wait times, increase access to home care and expand access for post-secondary education grants.

“Kathleen Wynne makes all kinds of great promises. She thinks she’s Oprah, but she’s not got the money Oprah has,” MacLeod told reporters.

READ MORE: Ontario government obscuring true cost of hydro bill cuts: Auditor general

Last fall, before Patrick Brown was ousted as PC leader, MacLeod’s party unveiled its own plan for childcare reform. The PC platform (now under review with new leader Doug Ford in the driver’s seat) pledged to provide a tax rebate that could cover up to 75 per cent of a family’s eligible child-care costs.

The PCs also said they would cap those eligible costs at $9,000 per child under age six, and $5,000 per child between the ages of six and 15. The rebate would also be income dependent.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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