Ot­tawa should leave day­care pol­icy to prov­inces

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY CHARLES LAMMAM, HUGH MAC­IN­TYRE AND BEN EISEN Charles Lammam, Hugh Mac­In­tyre and Ben Eisen are an­a­lysts with the Fraser In­sti­tute (www.fraserin­sti­tute.org).

A re­cent fed­eral an­nounce­ment to work on a na­tional frame­work for early learn­ing and child care marks a wor­ri­some evo­lu­tion in pol­icy in Canada.

Day­care pol­icy has been the do­main of the prov­inces but the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau wants to get in­volved — likely to the detri­ment of good pol­icy.

Ot­tawa will pull the purse strings with a new $7.5-bil­lion trans­fer to the prov­inces over 11 years for day­care.

The trans­fer comes with new re­quire­ments (ex­cept in Que­bec) and opens the door to fed­eral in­ter­fer­ence in pro­vin­cial pol­icy-mak­ing re­lated to day­care.

The Con­sti­tu­tion as­signs sep­a­rate roles for the fed­eral and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments. For ex­am­ple, Ot­tawa han­dles for­eign and de­fence pol­icy while pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments pro­vide health care and ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams.

In re­al­ity, how­ever, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment cre­ates rules that limit the pol­icy op­tions or dis­torts de­ci­sion-mak­ing by the prov­inces.

For ex­am­ple, Ot­tawa has es­tab­lished strin­gent rules (through the Canada Health Act) on how prov­inces run their health-care pro­grams. These rules for­bid many types of pol­icy ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and are largely re­spon­si­ble for pol­icy in­er­tia, underperformance and in­ef­fi­ciency (in­clud­ing long wait times). Fail­ure to abide by these rules re­sults in a re­duc­tion in the trans­fer of fed­eral funds.

In other ar­eas of pro­vin­cial pol­icy-mak­ing, how­ever, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has taken a more hands-off ap­proach — gen­er­ally with bet­ter re­sults.

Con­sider kinder­garten-toGrade-12 ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, where fed­eral in­flu­ence and fund­ing is lim­ited to abo­rig­i­nal ed­u­ca­tion. There’s no fed­eral min­istry of ed­u­ca­tion in Canada and there­fore no cabi­net po­si­tion ded­i­cated to ed­u­ca­tion.

The lack of fed­eral rules and over­sight al­lows prov­inces to in­no­vate and ex­per­i­ment with ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and de­liv­ery mod­els that suit their res­i­dents. That partly ex­plains why sev­eral Cana­dian prov­inces (B.C., for ex­am­ple) have high­per­form­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards.

Con­trast the Cana­dian ed­u­ca­tion ap­proach to that in the United States.

Prior to 1979, there was very lit­tle fed­eral in­volve­ment in ed­u­ca­tion. Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter then cre­ated a fed­eral cabi­net post for ed­u­ca­tion and started spend­ing fed­eral dol­lars to achieve his ob­jec­tives and mon­i­tor per­for­mance from Wash­ing­ton.

Since then, public spend­ing on ed­u­ca­tion has soared while stu­dent per­for­mance has de­clined.

That takes us back to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s day­care fund­ing an­nounce­ment. It looks like Canada may be turn­ing away from the suc­cess­ful de­cen­tral­ized ap­proach in ed­u­ca­tion to­wards a cen­tral­ized sys­tem char­ac­ter­ized by tight rules and over­sight from Ot­tawa.

The new fed­eral fund­ing for pro­vin­cial day­care pro­grams re­quires that prov­inces demon­strate progress to­ward goals, in­clud­ing a req­ui­site num­ber of day­care spa­ces, day­care work­ers, and pro­grams de­signed to serve par­tic­u­lar pop­u­la­tions such as mi­nori­ties and refugees.

Of course, gov­ern­ments should set mea­sur­able goals. But goals im­posed by Ot­tawa rob pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments of the flex­i­bil­ity to uni­lat­er­ally change tar­gets or ad­just pol­icy ap­proaches.

More broadly, there’s a risk of mis­sion creep, where the fed­eral gov­ern­ment could add con­di­tions over time.

The prov­inces will likely find it more dif­fi­cult to pre­vent fur­ther in­ter­fer­ence in pro­vin­cial day­care pol­icy as they be­come de­pen­dent on fed­eral funds.

Ex­pe­ri­ence in health-care pol­icy and else­where has taught us that fed­eral in­ter­fer­ence in pro­vin­cial mat­ters gen­er­ally leads to worse out­comes.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment would do well to stay out of pro­vin­cial ar­eas such as day­care pol­icy.

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