The prospect of fully funded, full-time kindergarten in Alberta doesn’t look very promising. Last year, Alberta’s provincial government said that the estimated $200 million program would be implemented by September 2013. During Alison Redford’s 2011 Conservative campaign, her party’s platform provided details about the social, developmental and economic benefits of full-time kindergarten for students, parents and teachers. But now, with the upcoming 2013 provincial budget to be released March 7, there is growing concern that plunging oil prices is costing the government millions in revenue—revenue that was supposed to help fund educational programming.
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While full-time kindergarten is offered in some Alberta schools, specifically those with a higher enrolment of at-risk students and ESL learners, fully funded programming would ensure that full-time kindergarten was available at all schools. Alberta currently funds 475 hours a year, working out to about 2.5 hours of kindergarten every weekday. In order to allow school boards to provide full-time kindergarten taught by certificated teachers, the provincial government would have to double the funding to 950 hours a year. Criticism of the push toward full-time programming is founded on the argument that the benefits of early childhood education are less obvious as children progress within the school system; the lack of measurable long-term effects thus suggests that publicly funded programming should be reserved for disadvantaged learners. Meanwhile, advocates of full-day kindergarten argue that the program allows for fewer grade retentions, an easier transition to Grade 1, and better language and communication development for all students.
Obviously, this program’s effect on children is an important question. It is also important, however, to ask how this program affects teachers, parents, and, more specifically, women. According to Statistics Canada, 87% of kindergarten and elementary teachers in Canada are women, while Canadian mothers are much more likely to stay at home or take up part-time employment than Canadian fathers. If implemented responsibly, the increase of kindergarten hours would likely create more full-time teaching jobs and would provide low-income and single parents (also predominantly women) with the resources to return to full-time work. Clearly, the prospect of full-time kindergarten promises these demographics great social and economic benefits. So why are women not being recognized as key stakeholders in this issue?
Consideration of previous resistance to cuts to kindergarten funding in Alberta helps to contextualize this question. In response to a fiscal crisis driven by falling oil prices, Ralph Klein’s provincial government reduced funding from 400 to 200 hours of kindergarten a year in 1994. Similar to the arguments being made against full-time kindergarten today, the Conservative government justified the cuts by arguing that part-time kindergarten did not provide lasting benefits for children. As scholar Lois Harder points out in her 2003 analysis of feminism and politics in Alberta, Premier Klein was able to cut funding because kindergarten in Alberta was, and still is, optional. Because kindergarten was not an integral part of the formal education system, the provincial government was able to nearly dispose of the program entirely.
In response to the cuts, Alberta school boards attempted to preserve the program in various ways. While some schools cut funding to extra-curricular programs, others instituted a fee that covered the unfunded 200 hours. Because of the fee, many low-income families and single-mothers were not able to enroll their children until halfway through the school year. Community organizers and parent groups took issue with these discrepancies emerging across provincial school boards because they would, as Harder paraphrases, “pose difficulties for grade-one classrooms, as children would be at widely divergent levels of preparation for schooling.”
Throughout Alberta, many groups emerged in opposition to the provincial cuts; in Edmonton, a group of women from the Glenora community, known as the Glenora Parent Teacher Association, led an effective campaign against the new policy. Interestingly, despite the Klein administration’s blatant disregard for the livelihoods of teachers and parents—roles predominantly fulfilled by women—the group did not present their cause as a women’s issue. This was surprising considering that, due to the reduction in funding, Alberta’s kindergarten teachers (99 percent women at the time) either lost their jobs or faced significant reductions in hours. Similarly, parents with children enrolled in kindergarten were forced to either say home or pay for childcare. Instead of addressing these consequences, however, the Glenora Parent Teacher Association chose to focus on Klein’s for the development of young children. Lois Harder points out that this focus on children rather than women was a strategic move to avoid being designated as a “special interest” group. Due to ongoing criticism from seemingly objective non-partisan groups like the Glenora Parent Teacher Association, as well as an increase in government revenue, the provincial government reinstituted funding for part-time kindergarten in 1996.
For Lois Harder, The Glenora Parent Teacher Association’s hesitancy to address the issue of gender during the struggle for part-time kindergarten funding in the 90s represents a political shift in Alberta. At the time, Ralph Klein’s provincial government was focused solely on strengthening Alberta’s economy; debates regarding social policy were necessarily dependent on the new Conservative project of deficit elimination. Groups that addressed certain societal issues but did not take into account this strategy of fiscal prudence were dismissed on account of their lack of economic mindfulness. As a result, these “special interest” groups held little power in the increasingly neoliberal province of Alberta.
While it is arguable that Alison Redford has quite clearly distanced herself from Klein’s strict governing strategies, the upcoming budget will likely require funding cuts to social programs in order to maintain fiscal balances. Faced with the question of whether kindergarten is actually beneficial for young children, it seems likely that the provincial government will opt for consultation rather than implementation. In order to emphasize the real consequences of this decision, however, we need to remember that the prospect of fully funded, full-time kindergarten is not only a children’s issue, but also a women’s issue.
Cynthia Spring is a writer living in Edmonton.
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