Editor’s Letter (October 2012): Toronto’s daycare dilemma

Editor’s Letter (October 2012): Toronto’s daycare dilemma

The daycare my son used to attend, in the west end, was located in a building that was falling apart. His caregivers were the loveliest, kindest, most generous people I’d ever known, and under their care he thrived—socially, physically and intellectually. But the building was a disgrace. The daycare, with four rooms full of kids 18 months to 10 years of age, was housed in a former elementary school owned by the Toronto District School Board. The paint on the façade was peeling off in huge chunks, the ancient curtains were ragged, the plumbing clanged.

Every time I’d ask the daycare director why parents couldn’t fundraise to buy new curtains or paint the exterior ourselves, the answer was always the same: any repairs to a TDSB building had to be done by the unionized TDSB workers, and the rates they set far exceeded the daycare’s budget. Essentially, the TDSB was our slumlord.

And yet it isn’t fair to blame the TDSB for putting the needs of our little daycare at the bottom of its long to-do list. The school board is just taking its cue from broader cultural attitudes. Daycares are generally low-priority in Toronto. Even though they’re an absolute necessity, used by the vast majority of working parents, our system is thoroughly under­nourished. It’s the weirdest damn thing: the province is eager to provide top-quality education, entirely free of charge, to every child who lives here, starting at the age of four. Until then, parents are on their own.

As Naomi Buck describes in her feature about the daycare situation, this leads to marketplace chaos. Some daycares are privately run by big companies, some are based out of homes, and some are run by the city itself. The standards of care vary wildly, though all daycares in Toronto have two things in common: they are terrifically expensive and exceedingly hard to get into. I was on a wait list for 27 months before my son earned a spot in his daycare. Once he was in, the cost was $1,300 a month. I didn’t have the luxury to reject the space because of its ragged curtains; I felt lucky to have found him a safe, loving place to spend the day.

The importance of early childhood education is by now no longer in dispute. So why does the state ignore our kids until elementary school? Why does the province pay the salary of a kindergarten teacher but not the caregiver who prepares the kid for kindergarten? And why does my generation fail repeatedly to make this an election issue?

The parents I used to see at my son’s daycare were from every income bracket. There were bike courier dads and lawyer moms. They all embodied the cliché of the 21st-century parent: insanely busy, stretched in every direction, willing to pay the high price of daycare because, after all, it was just temporary. And overwhelmingly they were too exhausted to campaign for reform.

A friend of mine, who’s completing her PhD in law and is married to a professor at the University of Toronto, has one child in daycare and will soon have two. Two kids in the system at once is financially brutal. She calculates that by the end of this year they’ll have spent more than $30,000 in childcare fees. “I sat down to do my family budget and it doesn’t balance,” she told me, with some alarm. They already live frugally: they rent a two-bedroom apartment downtown and don’t travel much. She’d dearly like to start saving for her children’s university education, but can’t.

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-born journalist who recently moved back to Canada after living most of her adult life in Berlin. She brings the fresh perspective of an outsider to her subject, in a story that should act as a wake-up call to the rest of us.

(Image: Christopher Wahl)