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Put aside $3 Billion for the Kids

That's how much more BC needs to spend on vulnerable pre-schoolers, say researchers. They call it a bargain.

Tom Sandborn 20 Nov

Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska and raised in the wilderness by wolves. Later, Jesuits at the University of San Francisco and radical feminists in Vancouver generously gave time and energy to the difficult task of educating and humanizing him. Tom has a formal education, too: a BA from UBC. He has been practicing the dark arts of journalism off and on ever since university, and now also has about five decades of social justice, peace and environmental campaigning under his belt.

Tom's goal is to live up to the classic definition of a journalist's job from H. L. Menken - to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reporting Beat: Labour and social justice, health policy, and occasionally environmental issues.

What is the most important issue facing British Columbians?: Two key issues face BC residents (and they're both so compelling and complex that Tom refuses to rank them): income equality and environmental degradation. Both desperately need solutions.

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Critical age for risks and rewards.

Nearly one out of three British Columbia children entering primary school struggles with serious issues that can limit his or her intellectual progress and health for the rest of their lives.

Results: early school drop out rates, teen pregnancies, criminal involvement, fewer kids attending university, lower levels of academic and economic success and greater vulnerability to illnesses such as heart disease, depression and diabetes later in life.

Those are the findings of researchers at the UBC based Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP). Their latest report puts a price tag on fixing the problem: $3 billion.

If that sounds like a lot of money (it is, for example, three quarters of all the oil and gas revenue the B.C. government took in last year), the report writers say the investments will generate wealth down the line, enlarging the provincial gross domestic product by 20 per cent over the next six decades.

The researchers say the money should be invested in extended parental leave for both mothers and fathers, accessible child care settings for most kids over 18 months, income supports for poor parents to reduce child poverty, family friendly employment policies and support for local coalitions that work to eliminate children's vulnerabilities.

Investing in the pre-school years makes sense, the researchers argue, because the first six years of life are crucial in a child's intellectual, social, physical and emotional development. Enriching a child's experience before kindergarten can pay off in enormous gains in health and functioning later, they say, citing both Canadian and international research.

Measuring 'the stock of human capital'

While the case for such spending is often argued in terms of compassionate concerns or human rights, the UBC researchers are prepared to make a business case for their favored policies.

"The stock of human capital in British Columbia is key to its long-term economic success. This means early child development is a critical issue for business leaders, because the years before age six set in motion factors that will determine the quality of the future labour force. Today, only 71 per cent of B.C. children arrive at kindergarten meeting all of the developmental benchmarks they need to thrive both now and into the future: 29 per cent are developmentally vulnerable," reads the introduction to the executive summary of their research.

Meanwhile, the BC Business Council, which funded the UBC research, is stopping short at calling for the investment the researchers say is necessary, while another key business group, the Vancouver Board of Trade, has decided to lobby the B.C. government to make investments in early childhood education programs a priority in its next budget.

'15 by 15'

The HELP research findings, and the policy proposals that flow from them, are based on more than a decade spent measuring the school readiness and learning vulnerabilities of kindergarten kids across the province in 480 neighborhoods. The measurement has been done since 2001 using the Early Development Instrument (EDI), a tool that allows kindergarten teachers to assess the vulnerabilities of their students on five key areas -- language, cognitive, social, emotional, and physical health.

The individual assessments then allow the researchers to compile population data that provide a detailed profile of child vulnerability on a neighborhood, school district and provincial basis.

The assessments, which have been done a minimum of three times now in every B.C. school district, reveal that nearly 30 per cent of B.C. kids enter the school system vulnerable on one or more of the five areas measured. Only five per cent of that measured vulnerability, HELP director Clyde Hertzman told The Tyee, is biologically based.

Herztman and his research colleagues are calling for a policy commitment to reduce child vulnerability across the province to 15 per cent by 2015. They are hoping "15 by 15" becomes something of a rallying cry -- their paper is titled "15 by 15, A Comprehensive Policy Framework for Early Human Capital Investment in B.C." And they set a final goal of a reduction to 10 per cent by 2020.

Currently the pre-school vulnerability rates found in B.C. neighborhoods range from 6.7 per cent in Revelstoke to more than 66 per cent in Vancouver's Strathcona, with Vancouver's overall vulnerability rate at 38 per cent and 93 per cent of B.C. neighborhoods showing child vulnerability at over 15 per cent. (Interactive maps that allow you to see just how your neighborhood rates in terms of child vulnerability are available on line at the HELP website.

While poverty increases children's vulnerability, as evidenced by the Strathcona numbers, school entry vulnerability is not restricted to poor kids. In fact, the largest numbers of children entering school with unacceptable levels of vulnerability live in middle class households. That's why the UBC researchers are calling for universal programs like extended parental leave and affordable child care for all, not just for measures targeting the most hard-hit families.

Business groups react

The "15 By 15" research and policy paper was authored by HELP researchers Paul Kershaw, Lynell Anderson, Bill Warburton, and Clyde Hertzman. The document was funded by the Business Council of B.C. as one of 29 research papers the business group has commissioned for its Opportunity 2020 project and released this August.

The council's vice president, Jock Finlayson, was quick to tell The Tyee in a recent phone call that his group has not endorsed the specific policy proposals in "15 by 15." In fact, he said in early November that none of the commissioned papers, including ones by his own staff, were being formally endorsed.

"We want the papers to spark discussion," Finlayson said. "The HELP paper is an excellent piece, and the human capital issues it covers are important for the province. The paper will certainly influence our thinking."

Sue Paish, CEO of Pharmasave Drugs and chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade told The Tyee on Nov. 16 that the board had decided only days earlier to identify early childhood education as a priority in its annual budget presentation to the B.C. government.

"The board of directors decided on Friday that we would be naming investment in early childhood education as a priority item for B.C.'s budget this year," Paish told The Tyee. "However, although I agree in principle with many of the findings of the '15 by 15' study (and I think every B.C. politician would as well), there are important practical questions. As communities and individuals we need a discussion of what our priorities are and how to fund them. Health care costs in the province are not sustainable, and they are pressuring every other area of public spending, including early childhood programs. Until the health care sustainability problem is solved, it is hard to see where the kind of dollars the '15 by 15' report calls for are going to come from."

Another prominent business figure is cautious about endorsing the level of government spending called for by the UBC team. Floyd Sully is the CEO and owner of a Richmond-based law enforcement company, Syscon Justice Systems Ltd. Sully, a former president of the BC Liberal party, who has recently opened a company-sponsored child care for his own employees, is a member of the federal Ministerial Advisory Committee for the Child Care Spaces Initiative. He told The Tyee that while he was glad to see people are concerned about children's development, he did not believe that government alone can provide solutions.

"We need to be more innovative," Sully said. "Parents should be able to decide what kids need and have access to some funding."

'An investment we have to make'

On the other hand, Janet Austin, CEO of Vancouver YWCA says that the province cannot afford not to make the investments called for by the HELP research. She has been organizing breakfast meetings for key business leaders to allow them to hear detailed reports from the UBC researchers.

"This is an investment we have to make," she said. "The HELP research is sound and evidence based, and it agrees with a wide body of international and local findings."

She said the business leaders who attend her breakfasts are "fascinated and open to the HELP arguments."

Adrienne Montani, who speaks for the child and youth rights advocacy group First Call, said a shift in political will is needed.

"We have to shift our priorities. Look at the money that has been spent on BC Place and the Olympics, not to mention tax breaks and subsidies for big companies that represent foregone revenue and the social costs created when we try to remediate the damage done to children by poverty and inadequate care later on in hospital, prison and social service expenses. Some of that money should go to attain the 15 by 15 policy reforms."

Montani added that she was not optimistic about the current B.C. government moving effectively on the policy changes the HELP researchers advocate. She said that has recently been quoted in the press saying the government was not in the business of building child care facilities.

"With this government," Montani said, "we're stuck. They seem ideologically driven away from the steps that need to be taken for kids."

Minister Polak: Economic climate not right

B.C.'s minister of children and family development, Mary Polak, was not available for an interview, but she did respond by email to some Tyee questions.

"While the economic climate does not allow us to consider the kind of investment the report suggests today, we have consistently demonstrated a commitment to early learning -- and we will continue to do so in the future," the minister wrote.

Polak noted that the province has provided HELP with $20 million in funding since 2003, and that meetings are planned between ministry staff and HELP researchers, including Paul Kershaw, the lead author of the "15 by 15" paper.

Polak cited provincial expenditures of more than a billion dollars that address early childhood vulnerabilities, including $23 million for early childhood development initiatives this year, including support for ECD planning tables across BC; $600 million for special needs programs including Infant Development and nearly $300 million for child care programs, including subsidies. She said the ministry appreciates HELP's research, which "supports our shared goal of reducing early vulnerabilities, which requires a broad community and nation-wide response."  [Tyee]

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