Given Ontario's massive deficit, why is Premier Dalton McGuinty focused on imposing an expensive, full-day kindergarten program on the province?
Cynics will say that the project is about burnishing his legacy, about leaving future generations of Ontarians something more than red ink. He's practically said as much, suggesting that once his kindergarten program was passed, "I find it hard to see somebody seeking to undo [it]."
He is, of course, right: It is much harder to take away expensive entitlements than it is to introduce them in the first place. This is one of the reasons that the nanny state-- of which Mr. McGuinty might be considered governess-in-chief, these days -- is anxious to get into the business of hiring literal all-day nannies for Ontario's five-year-olds.
Full-day kindergarten has a few noisy advocates in the education research community, and, no doubt, near-universal support from working parents (or prospective parents) of children below kindergarten age. The specific question few are asking right now is whether there is any meaningful developmental difference between full-day and halfday kindergarten; in other words, whether this policy is likely to actually deliver any social benefit in exchange for the staggering, probably permanent cost to taxpayers. Or will it simply socialize the cost of child-care that working parents now pay to day-care centres and private nannies.
Recent research points to the latter. In controlled studies of the immediate effects of full-day kindergarten, full-day kids do admittedly gain distinct, observable academic and behavioural advantages on halfday kids. But in longitudinal studies, which is what should concern us, the results are more mixed. Contrary to what fans of rushing children into a school setting would have you believe, the initial advantages don't explode over time, creating one cohort of bright, well-adjusted superchildren and another consisting of thuggish, sullen no-hopers. In every study, the initial advantages provided by full-day kindergarten diminish over time. Among experts, the debate is over whether they dwindle all the way to zero, or merely to near-insignificance.
As one might expect, Premier McGuinty has designed the full-day kindergarten program so that it has absolutely none of the cost-effectiveness advantages trumpeted by the early-education advocates who blazed a trail for him through the thickets of public opinion. Even giving those advocates the benefit of their premises and letting them cherry-pick their favourite studies, the clearest possible message in the pedagogical literature on full-day kindergarten is that you neither need, nor want, a full-day kindergarten curriculum to be characterized by highly structured lessons in abstraction. The point is to create an environment orderly enough to let children engage in self-directed learning and small-group projects. They are there to get a low-intensity introduction to (a) getting along with each other, and (b) obeying adults who aren't Mom and Dad. But, of course, that mandate wouldn't sit well with degree-holding teacher-union members, dragging their fat pensions and bulletproof perquisites along behind them.
In short, the McGuinty government is introducing a policy that is questionably beneficial, and will be implemented in a deliberately inefficient way, at a time when Ontario literally cannot afford it. It's not the sort of legacy any premier should want.