TORONTO - Ontario will move ahead with a massive and costly program to offer full-day kindergarten for all four- and five-year-olds despite an unprecedented $25-billion deficit this year, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday.
Even though Ontario is expecting to hemorrhage red ink for years with no end in sight, it's "essential" that the province invest in the $1.5-billion-a-year program to build a stronger workforce down the road, he said.
"Parents everywhere are the same," he said. "All we want is for our children to grow up and be the very best that they might be, to achieve their greatest potential."
Moving forward with all-day kindergarten - billed as a North American first - may require cuts in other spending areas, McGuinty warned.
"You're waiting for the other shoe to drop? Is that what you're waiting for?" he said after touring a Toronto kindergarten class.
"It will. It will in due course. That's not the announcement I'm making here today though."
The province "can't have everything," but it will keep funding its priorities of education and health care, he added.
McGuinty's staff couldn't provide a breakdown how much will be spent on all-day kindergarten over the next five years, but the government has set aside $500 million over two years to start it up. The program will be phased in over five years and will cost about $1.5 billion a year once it's rolled out across the province.
Next September, 35,000 kids will be able to enrol in full-day kindergarten, which McGuinty promised to expand to all eligible children by 2015. That puts Ontario behind British Columbia, which plans to offer full-day kindergarten to all of its five-year-olds by 2011.
About 18,000 of the over 240,000 junior and senior kindergarten students in Ontario are enrolled in full-day learning at a handful of francophone and Catholic schools, which fund the programs by diverting money from other sources, provincial officials said.
Under the new plan, teachers will take the lead but also work with early educators in the classroom, said Education Minister Kathleen Wynne. Their exact roles and responsibilities have yet to be determined.
Class sizes will also increase under the new program, with enough funding for two adults for every 26 children. The current provincial cap for primary classes is 20 to 23 students.
If parents want childcare before 9 a.m. and after 3:30 p.m, they'll have to pay a fee, and the kids will be supervised by an early childhood educator.
The schools that will offer the program will be announced early in the new year. Priority will be given to low-income schools, as well as those that have available space and have the greatest need for the program.
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec offer all-day kindergarten for five-year-olds. Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec offer some programs for four-year-olds.
Ontario has part-day kindergarten for four-year-olds, but school is not mandatory until Grade 1.
Early education, which started out as a Liberal campaign promise, will likely ignite more sparks as Ontario heads into the 2011 election.
Both the Liberals and Opposition Conservatives appear to be spoiling for a fight over the program, with McGuinty warning that unless he's in charge, a new group of chop-happy Tories will slash the very programs that parents need most.
Opposition Leader Tim Hudak said the province can't afford another big-spend program while it's limping through a recession, but wouldn't say if he would scrap full-day kindergarten.
"Dalton McGuinty has emptied the bank and now he's kicked off his Hallmark campaign promise until after the next election," he said.
"I mean, my two-year-old daughter is probably going to be thinking about going to prom by the time he unrolls this program."
Charles Pascal, the government's early learning adviser, had estimated that the fully implemented early learning program could cost about $1 billion.
His June report recommended sweeping changes that include expanding paid parental leave to 400 days, and combining daycare and kindergarten into a single full-day program from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. to make life easier for parents and their children.
It also said that children who have attended full-day programs before Grade 1 fare better academically and have better social skills.
The decision to move ahead with the program despite the deficit is "heroic," Pascal said Tuesday.