Child care is more than a ‘market’

The Canberra Times

The Rudd Government copped some mild criticism last week for dumping its pre-election pledge to build more than 220 child-care centres. …It’s a shame, though, that the politics around Ms Ellis’s announcement was more discussed than the policy itself. …

[Ms Ellis] also argued that after Labor promised the extra centres, the collapse of ABC Learning had reshaped the industry. …

A more likely reason for the decision against building new centres is the changing nature of supply. The child-care sector’s rapid growth has attracted many businesses. An industry once run mostly by community groups is now dominated by private companies, which control three in four centres across Australia. Over time, they have demanded bigger subsidies to keep their fees affordable. It’s likely they have also lobbied against new centres, which would increase competition. Governments have complied, and taxpayers now foot up to half of the cost of child care. It’s a dangerous business model, as any future decision to cut these rebates could cripple exposed providers.

Perhaps it’s time for governments to stop treating child care as just another ”market”, to be guided by regulation and propped up with subsidies. …Child care is no longer a middle-class luxury; it is crucial to society.

This begs the question: should governments approach child care as they do schools? The consensus of educationalists is that early childhood learning experiences have a greater effect on a student’s future than primary or secondary school. Yet the public education system still reflects 20th-century thinking on when formal learning begins. Governments are the main provider of schools in Australia because they believe schooling is too important to be left entirely to the market. In contrast, only 3 per cent of child-care centres are government-owned and managed….