Bennett Group of Companies CEO Cathy Bennett speaks to the St. Johns Board of Trade luncheon Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in St John’s. — Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram
Businesswoman Cathy Bennett is urging the local business community to support full-day kindergarten.
In a lunch-time address to the St. John’s Board of Trade, Bennett — CEO of the Bennett Group of Cos., with interests in the restaurant, construction and property industries — told a packed house at the Holiday Inn on Tuesday that the best way to help children in the province reach their full potential is full-day senior and junior kindergarten.
“Overall research findings favour full-day kindergarten over the half-day program we have now,” Bennett said. “These studies suggest that full-day kindergarten is especially effective for children who are socially or educationally mismanaged. There are also a few studies which found that children who attend full-day kindergarten are less likely to enrol in special-education classes. And there is not one study that I can find which demonstrates a single academic or social advantage to restricting children to half-day kindergarten.”
Bennett outlined the social and economic case to the business crowd — including making the province more attractive to potential workers — even touching on a recent Telegram story about rising teen pregnancy rates in the province, noting young mothers would benefit from full-day junior and senior kindergarten by letting them go into the workforce or back into the educational system sooner.
“Not only does full-day kindergarten have educational benefits for children, it also has practical advantages for families in our communities,” she said.
“What a blessing it would be for those moms who are 15 to 19, for a way to finish their own opportunity to educate themselves and take advantage of the opportunities are out there. Not every family has the luxury of a stay-at-home parent or a guardian or the resources to afford day care, if they can find it at all. Full-day junior and senior kindergarten could help ease the burden of parents, grandparents and guardians in managing school drop offs and offering care.”
After her speech, Bennett said she appealed to the business community as a way to get people thinking about solutions.
“Until you bring people into a dialogue, you never know what the possibility is,” she said. “So if the vision is full-day junior and senior kindergarten, let’s get a whole bunch of us in a room and try to figure out how we can roll up our sleeves and make it happen. It’s too important to let barriers and things that get in our way of having good conversations slow us down.”
One conversation would be about government spending, in a year with a projected deficit of $725 million. But Bennett said solutions will be found if the government makes it a priority.
“I don’t know what the correct path is to get there, but what I do know is other jurisdictions have done it. They’ve figured out a way to make it happen,” she said.
“We’ve got a lot of smart people in government, in unions, in the community. We’ve got parents that are smart. We’ve got to be able to figure out a way of making this a priority so that we can see the benefit of it, not in 10 years, but the benefit of it this September.”
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, on hand for the luncheon, said she was delighted to hear Bennett’s speech.
“Most social programs and most social issues do have an economic side to them, and you can build a really positive business case for most social programs, and what she did here today was just wonderful.”
The Conservative government has been studying the benefit — and cost — of full-day kindergarten. Education Minister Clyde Jackman told The Telegram last week that while the government hasn’t arrived at a final cost estimate, he believes full-day kindergarten will one day be implemented.
“I suspect at some point we are going to have full-day kindergarten,” he said Feb. 6.
“We are looking at it seriously as a government, based on sound educational practice. It’s something that I can conceivably say I think we will be entering into.”
Jackman said the problem of cost isn’t as much about annual cost — which New Democrat MHA Dale Kirby pegs at about $20 million to $24 million — but about the extra classrooms the school system would need.
Sharon Horan, the senior vice-chairwoman of the Board of Trade, commended Bennett’s remarks.
“We need to make that link and make people realize that as we improve the education system of our youth, when we improve the opportunities for our young people who are working to have access to good day care and not worry about where their children are and who’s picking them up at 12 o’clock, that this is really good, not only from a social context, but from a business context as well,” she said.
Horan said even though the Board of Trade often calls for reduced government spending, it’s important to look at cost-benefit arguments.
“I think many of us that are in business are really realizing that there’s productivity losses that exist when we don’t have a good social framework, and it’s really hard to put a dollar value on those productivity losses, but they impact us every day,” she said.
“And certainly with the labour market crisis we’re in right now, we need every available person who has skills to be working, and helping them with good social backup programs and services is really going to help us with that.”
Bennett acknowledged that bolstering the workforce would benefit her as a business owner, but insisted her speech was a personal passion that has been building for a while.
“When you’re given the gift of the opportunity we have in this province, that there’s an accountability to it,” she said.
“And if we don’t figure out how to fulfil the responsibility that comes with a gift of opportunity, by making things better for the next generation, then we’ve failed.”