Liberals promise universal preschool program for 4-year-olds

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'Schools are free:' Daycares worried about impact of new pre-primary program

'Schools are free:' Daycares worried about impact of new pre-primary program

During a rare moment of calm at Needham Preschool and Daycare in Halifax, Janessa Williams pauses.

She's thinking about Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil's promise to offer a universal preschool program for every four-year-old in Nova Scotia.

The promise is both a validation of Williams's profession and a threat to her business.

"Its very exciting because the province is beginning to see us as professionals, as teachers," she said.

"I am concerned, however, that would have a big impact on our preschool program or any preschool programs in Nova Scotia that is solely a preschool program and not a daycare, infant, toddler-offering spaces."

On Wednesday, McNeil turned the promise from his party's short-lived budget into a major plank in the Liberal re-election campaign.

The promise: Free preschool for 4-year-olds 

Starting in the fall, a Liberal government would spend $3.7 million to offer pre-primary in 30 new classes across the province.

The numbers and budget would ramp up in future years as the preschool program is rolled out, largely inside schools.

By 2020, the Liberals promise universal access for 9,000 four-year-olds at a cost of $49 million per year.

"It may seem expensive, but we believe they are worth it," said McNeil.

"Their parents worked hard to help us get our province into a better financial position and now their children and grandchildren will reap the benefits."

'It's the best thing for her'

The Bayers Westwood Family Resource Centre is one of eight sites currently offering a government-paid preschool program for children who are at least four years of age.

"Its the best thing for her," said Melissa Yetman, whose four-year-old daughter, Arianna, is in a program at the centre.

"She's already spelling her name and writing it. She's singing ABCs, she can count to 20, knows all her colours."

As a single mother living in public housing, she said it's a program she could otherwise not afford.

At the non-profit Needham preschool where Williams works, parents pay $830 per month to put their four-year-olds in the pre-primary program, which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Williams said those hours are great for working couples, but for those who don't need daycare service, going to a free preschool programs has a lot of appeal.

"We could see some of those families go to the four-plus program because it's very expensive. Its a mortgage payment to put your child in daycare," she said.

Williams said she would be "scared" if elementary schools in her north-end neighbourhood started offering preschool.

"It would be detrimental if we lost our 24 preschoolers that we currently have," said Williams.

McNeil says families could save $10K

Under the Liberal plan, McNeil said families could save up to $10,000 a year.

He acknowledged the program would impact daycares and sounded sympathetic.

"We realize this new plan will leave daycare operators feeling vulnerable and we want to reassure them that they still have an important part to play in our growing population," he said. 

"We recognize we will need to work with our current operators in every area of our province to help them transition before the school takes care."