Michael Ignatieff is talking up education and a key component of his agenda is a universal daycare scheme. The Toronto Star reports:

A national child-care program will be put in place by a future Liberal government, no matter how bare the fiscal cupboard may be, leader Michael Ignatieff has promised.

“We will find the money, because it seems to me an excellent investment,” Ignatieff told reporters in Ottawa on Monday. “I am not going to allow the deficit discussion to shut down discussion in this country about social justice.”

The 2006 federal election was fought largely on this turf and the Liberals lost; I suggest they get Scott Reid to quarterback PR on this one. Canadians thought that a plan to take children out of their homes and force them into a one-size fits-all childcare arrangement was unwise and a waste of money.

I find it odd that Liberals would press this as a social justice issue, but to most liberals, their entire agenda is about “social justice” as they conceive it, and those who disagree with them prop up a socially unjust society.

But more than as a matter of fairness, Ignatieff is pushing universal daycare as an educational “investment” in our children. The returns on investment in early childhood education — as the daycare industry likes to call itself — are both marginal and in dispute. Furthermore, there is seldom any examination of the costs of such programs beyond mere dollars and cents.

Ben Eisen, a policy analyst with the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy, outlines the case against a universal daycare scheme in a recent study, “Myths about Childcare Subsidies.” The key takeaways are:

1) Generally, the benefits of early childhood education (childcare) wear off by the time the child is in Grade 3, so that there is no meaningful cognitive advantage for children who went to preschool compared to those who did not.

2) Programs geared specifically toward poor and minority children, such as the HighScope Perry Preschool Project and Carolina Abecedarian Project, yield modest lifetime improvements in both social development and cognitive outcomes, but that such programs are not replicable in a broad, universal program for the middle class because of the intensity of the program (from teacher-child ratio to family engagement). Furthermore, poor children have more social disadvantages to begin with which an intensive preschool program might be able to address, but which are broadly unnecessary.

3) Middle class and affluent parents already have access to childcare and thus it is questionable whether scarce public resources should be used to subsidize such care, especially considering that there is little indication of long-term benefits, wheareas targeted subsidies for the poor might make some sense based on the marginal cognitive and social benefits seen in this subsection of the population.

4) There are numerous studies that show there are some problems related to enrolment in childcare, including negative social development  such as “heightened aggression and anxiety” and increased incidents of various health problems.

None of this is very new, but Eisen has done Canadian policymakers a favour by collecting the data in one handy document and includes citations to the original studies. He concludes that social policy must weigh (as much as possible) both the costs and the benefits of a program, and that these be understood in their full panapoly of impacts. Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party seem unaware or (worse) unconcerned about either the economic costs or social development/health costs to children in childcare. It would seem that their commitment to a universal daycare scheme is ideological, a preference for state involvement in the raising and education of the country’s children from as early as possible.