Is subsidized daycare bad for kids?

A surprising new study says Quebec’s $7-a-day daycare is leaving children worse off

Bad for kids?


In public policy, few subjects are as sure to spark fierce debate as child care. Prime Minister Stephen Harper portrays a stark divide when he talks about his Conservative policy of giving parents $100 a month for every child under six, and how he scrapped the previous Liberal government’s plan to pour billions into deals with the provinces to expand subsidized daycare. “We took money from bureaucrats and lobbyists,” he says, “and gave it to the real experts on child care, and their names are Mom and Dad!”

If daycare advocates have lost the battle in Ottawa, at least for as long as Harper is in power, they’ll always have Quebec as a beacon of hope. Starting in 1997, the province implemented a low-cost universal child care policy along the lines of the European model. The number of subsidized daycare spaces in the province soared to 210,000 last year, from just 77,000 in 1997. Nothing like it has been tried anywhere else in North America.

But now three Montreal researchers have studied the Quebec experiment, focusing on how the rapid expansion of $7-a-day daycare seems to be reflected in Quebec kids’ scores on a school-readiness test. Their findings are potentially explosive. “In summary,” they write, “the effects of the program are found to be negative for five-year-olds and less convincingly negative for four-year-olds.”

The study, entitled “Quebec’s Childcare Universal Low Fees Policy 10 Years After: Effects, Costs and Benefits,” is co-authored by Université du Québec à Montréal economists Pierre Lefebvre, Philip Merrigan and Francis Roy-Desrosiers. They look at the main goals of Quebec’s daycare policy—allowing more mothers of young children to work outside the home, and enhancing prospects of success in school for kids, especially those from lower-income families. On letting more moms enter the labour force, the program has been a smashing success, dramatically boosting their participation rates.

The paper is far more contentious, however, when it turns to how children are affected by Quebec’s incentive for parents to put their kids in care at a younger age and for more hours each week. The data comes mainly from a massive, ongoing Statistics Canada project called the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. The NLSCY tracks the progress of thousands of young people: its latest stage, for example, looks at 35,795 children from less than one to seven years old, and youths from 14 to 25. Such a deep data pool allows researchers to make broad comparisons among groups.

For kids at the ages that the Montreal economists studied, the NLSCY has scores nationwide for more than 10,000 four-year-olds and more than 18,000 five-year-olds. All those children were given what’s called the Peabody Picture and Vocabulary Test, an oral test that’s widely used to gauge verbal ability. The results are adjusted by age group to a mean score of 100; variations above and below that level are what matter.

Sampling seven years of NLSCY data, the Montreal researchers found no conclusive evidence that Quebec’s daycare policy had changed PPVT scores markedly for four-year-olds. Still, they cautiously flag some negative indications for the children of mothers with low education, calling these variations in PPVT results “large enough for policy-makers to worry about.”

Their findings for five-year-olds, though, are more pronounced. They discovered “sizable negative and significant effects.” For example, they found that Quebec’s child care policy reduced the PPVT score for five-year-olds in 2002-2003 by 4.9 points on average. “This is a very large effect,” they say. To give a sense of how large, they point out that, by comparison, a child whose mother has a university degree typically scores three points above a child whose mother has only a high school diploma.

For Quebec five-year-olds who took the test in 2006-2007, compared with their peers elsewhere in Canada, the study says “negative effects” show up for children of both highly educated and less-educated mothers, but tend to be slightly worse for kids whose mothers had a high school diploma or less. In other words, Quebec kids, after many of their parents began taking advantage of the province’s new low-cost daycare, did worse on a basic vocabulary test. “Therefore,” the researchers conclude with withering understatement, “the picture is not quite what it should be for a policy that seeks to increase early literacy skills and better prepare children for school.”

That result is surprising in light of other studies the authors themselves mention. They cite a review of international research published last year by Kaspar Burger, a Swiss education professor, who found “the vast majority” of child care programs positively affect development, and disadvantaged children tend to benefit slightly more than better-off kids. A possible exception is very early daycare. The Montreal researchers refer to previous studies that suggest child care in the first year of life can have adverse effects on test scores and behaviour.

There’s no question that many more Quebec kids are spending more time, often starting very young, in non-parental care. Between 2000 and 2008, the percentage of Quebec’s one-year-olds in child care nearly doubled, from 26 per cent to just over 50 per cent. Back in 2004, before Quebec’s new policy was launched, 45 per cent of kids aged one to four were in daycare, and 68 per cent for more than 21 hours a week; by 2006, 74 per cent were in care, and 83 per cent for more than 21 hours.

The authors don’t shy away from suggesting that longer hours in care outside the home from an earlier age—what they call “intensity”—might be behind those troubling test scores. “Our intuition,” they write, “is that children are simply spending too much time, especially when they are under age three, in daycare for the [Quebec child care] policy to have any positive effect.”

The authors stress that their study remains a working paper. It hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed for publication in a scholarly journal, though they have presented it at academic conferences. Merrigan told Maclean’s the trend lines in the data are not always consistent, which he and his co-authors find hard to explain. They are planning to look at an eighth year of NLSCY data as it becomes available. As well, they are expanding their research to reflect more variables, such as the father’s education level.

The paper is available online and is already being discussed among child care experts. Some are skeptical about its findings. While the Montreal researchers see that “intensity” increase as problematic, advocates for more government spending on child care are inclined to focus more on quality of care. Previous studies have red-flagged problems in maintaining standards as Quebec rapidly added new daycare spaces. Hillel Goelman, a University of British Columbia education professor and child development expert, points out that the study doesn’t distinguish between kids who went to good and poor centres. “The working paper mentions the importance of child care quality,” Goelman says, “but none of the data analyses compare the language performance of children in high- and low-quality child care.”

As well, he questioned the paper’s emphasis on PPVT scores. The test measures only “language comprehension,” he points out, not other language skills, or things like social and emotional development. “Researchers have to be cautious in the use and interpretation of PPVT scores and especially cautious when equating PPVT results with child development,” Goelman says. Merrigan defended relying on the PPVT, calling the test “a good predictor of success.”

Perhaps surprisingly, some advocates of more government funding for child care actually agree that starting kids in daycare very early likely isn’t a good idea. Paul Kershaw, a professor at UBC’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies, calls the Quebec child care policy “without doubt” the best in Canada. Yet he argues that substantial subsidies for daycare should kick in for kids older than 18 months.

Before then, Kershaw says, governments should instead offer far more generous parental leave benefits to allow both parents a chance to stay home. “When we talk about families with young kids, we pit some against the others in very ideological ways,” he says. “It’s about conservatives saying we need kids spending more time at home with parents, especially the mom. The liberals say we need more child care services. The reality is they’re both right. Both ideas are absolutely critical right now.”

Kershaw’s bid to straddle the ideological divide on child care policy remains relatively rare. As the research of Merrigan, Lefebvre and Roy-Desrosiers attracts more scrutiny, reaction is likely to divide others into competing camps. It’s a split that continues to play out, not just in theoretical debate, but in real policy, too. The Harper government issued a celebratory news release on July 1 marking the fifth anniversary of its $100 per kid a month Universal Child Care Credit, while in this spring’s Quebec provincial budget, Liberal Premier Jean Charest announced a further $558-million investment to create yet another 15,000 more $7-a-day daycare spaces over the next five years.

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