A report released yesterday celebrated the fact that more than half of Canadian preschoolers are in regulated child care centers or pre-school programs. Federal and provincial spending has nearly doubled from 2.4 billion tax dollars in 2004 to $4.5 billion today (covering children up to age 12.) Dr. Fraser Mustard, a long-time advocate of early childhood education (who passed away last week), was one of the report's primary authors. In a Toronto Star interview, he argued that after full-day kindergarten is made available for 4- and 5-year-olds, "I would come down to 3-year-olds, then 2-year-olds and 1-year-olds."

The Star report claims Ontario is embracing "the overwhelming social, economic, and scientific evidence favouring investments in early-childhood education." Says the report,

We need to turn our family policy junkyard into a human development system . . . By viewing the school as a family centre not only for students during the school day, but also for families during non-school hours, we can have an early childhood system that responds to the new Canadian mother and her children, as well as the expectant mother, the at-home father and dual-income professionals and their children.

The arguments for and against state involvement in early childhood education are familiar. The two sides usually talk past each other, in part because the underlying worldviews are so markedly different. Both sides talk about the importance of children and of choices but they differ on the role and priority that is to be given to the family unit in making these decisions. In a world where the individual and the government are the two dominant institutions in the social architecture, the contribution of families is unmeasured and ignored.

That's a benevolent view. Some might suggest that family contributions are not only ignored but in fact feared and suspected. The Vice-President of the foundation funding the study is quoted, "(We) need to intervene in children's lives early on in order to achieve the best possible outcomes and make sure they get off to a good start in school and in life" (my emphasis). Parents, it would seem, are simply not up to the job.

One media blogger this morning notes that in the midst of a whole bunch of seemingly uncontroversial and common-sense sounding individual proposals lies a philosophy that mistakenly places all its faith in government to solve problems that it is ill-suited to solve.

(T)he whole report still seems too creepy for an education proposal. It's hard not to envision some uniformed state official saying to proud new parents, "Congratulations, it's a girl. We'll take it from here." . . . There are limits to how much of family life a government should intrude on. The fact many families' lives are suboptimal makes it harder to acknowledge this truth, but doesn't do anything to change it.

Cardus is in the business of renewing social architecture. It would appear we are not alone in this endeavour. The differences regarding our views of individual, family, and government responsibility are not merely academic differences but work themselves out in practical and profoundly significant manners.