Shrinking schools, broke parents: We can’t afford to grow up in Vancouver

Vancouver families crushed between housing prices and child care costs.
Jordan Yerman, Vancouver Observer

Vancouver schools are shrinking

Each year for the past three years, Vancouver has been losing the equivalent of two schools.

Below you’ll find a Vancouver School Board internal memorandum enumerating the inflow and outflow of students as families move to and away from Vancouver.

The average size of a Vancouver school is roughly three hundred students. In the 2009-2010, 2010-2011, and 2011-2012 school years, the district lost 678, 697, and 629 students respectively.

Tracey Sherlock at the Vancouver Sun reports that the primary reason for student withdrawal was the high cost of housing. Basically, staying in Vancouver has grown too expensive for hundreds and hundreds of families….

While Vancouver’s real-estate development boom is good for the City Hall in terms of taxes and fees collected, it’s terrible news for the city’s schools. As the school system hemorrhages students, so too does it lose provincial funding.

While the student body and its associated funding shrink, the core expenditures associated with running a school do not: the lights must still stay on, the building must still be maintained, faculty and staff must still be paid.

Pre-school, prohibitively expensive

Of course, if you think maintaining an abode large enough for you and your school-age offspring is tough, try doing so while raising a toddler. Housing costs are not the only factor downgrading Vancouver’s livability for families. Child care costs are also frighteningly high, and parents must deal with child care for years before their kids can enter the school system.

Unless a parent is able to stay at home, sending the little ones to daycare will be as expensive as renting an apartment. A friend of mine, graphic designer by trade, is faced with $900 monthly daycare costs for his three-year-old. His new daughter’s care whilst he and his wife are working will come to $1300 per month… and that’s with a government subsidy. So, $2100 per month to take care of two kids: at what point does it make more sense for one partner to stay home?

What, then, does that do to the stay-at-home partner’s own career, and thus prospects for the family’s future? What if there’s only one parent?

(Before you suggest working from home, keep in mind that “work from home” and “look after an infant or toddler” are mutually exclusive concepts if your job requires any sort of measurable productivity.)

Child care costs are the #1 cause of poverty among Vancouver’s single moms, and the existing subsidy program does not help. According to Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, if you are poor enough to qualify for low-income childcare subsidy, you’re also too poor to afford the rest of the fee.

Gregson told me, “The cost of raising children has skyrocketed. It’s gone from bad to worse to crisis.” The crisis Gregson is talking about affects low-income families the most, obviously, but we recently saw that Vancouverites in general are slipping down the economic ladder.

What if you’re a young single parent trying to finish school? Child care would be financially out of reach, as would then be your degree.

Why is child care so expensive in Vancouver? Demand. Parents need to get their little ones cared for whilst they go to work, and there are more kids than there is room at daycare facilities. These daycare providers are all privately run, and are thus are positioned to capitalize on what amounts to sheer parental desperation. Remarks Gregson, “Child care does not belong in the marketplace. We wouldn’t do it with health care.”

CCCABC has a $10/day child care plan, which is endorsed by the cities of Vancouver, West Van, North Van, New Westminster, Surrey, and many other cities, towns, school boards, and institutions with a stake in the responsible raising of children.

The main opposition to ultra-affordable child care is not coming from the private daycare providers, as you may have expected. The primary opponent to $10/day child care at the moment is Christie Clark’s government, which argues that the plan would cost the province too much money.

However, Gregson told me that the BC government’s child care subsidy program allots $146 million to families in need, which equates to roughly $55 per eligible child per month. That’s less than one day of child care, arguably not a sensible use of $146 million.

As our grasp on a livable wage slips, do you think the pool of families in need will be shrinking, or growing?

Meanwhile, British Columbia has the second-highest rate of child poverty in Canada.

This represents a failure in vision (or a crippling inability to do math) on par with what we’re seeing with the housing crisis: stay-at-home parents do not contribute to the economy (or position themselves to do so by completing higher education or technical training) in the same way as working parents; and if you’re not working in Vancouver, you’re marking time until you have to leave.

This is not to say that stay-at-home moms and dads don’t matter: of course they do, and they often have no choice but to go the stay-at-home route. The point is that it is not in the city’s interest, socially, financially, or developmentally, to have legions of adults spending all this time outside of the workforce.

Considering all of this, I was left with a pit in my stomach: what could my future here possibly be should I be lucky enough to start a family of my own? Never mind keeping a kid in school, how would I afford to even keep her in town until Kindergarten?

Sharon Gregson was a Vancouver School Board trustee for six years, and is as familiar with the shrinking-schools problem as she is with the the child care affordability crisis. The two go hand in hand, she says, which is why the Vancouver School Board supports the $10/day child care plan. If you can keep families around so that they enrol their kids in public school early, those kids are more likely to remain in public school.

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