EDITORIAL: Parents face dismal preschool options

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A survey by the Jing Chuan Child Safety Foundation found that 80 percent of kindergarten classrooms nationwide failed to meet fire safety requirements. Presenting the findings on Thursday last week, the foundation said the problem was due to a lack of government oversight. He cited an incident last year in which kindergarten children died during a field trip.

For many years there have been reports of a lack of effective government regulation of kindergartens. A May 6, 2016, Taipei Times article quoted a committee member of the National Federation of Teachers’ Unions (NFTU) expressing concerns about safety in kindergartens and unqualified teachers.

Kindergarten teachers often lack appropriate qualifications and the turnover rate is high, said Lai Min-li (賴閔莉), a member of the NFTU’s early childhood education committee, adding that kindergartens are often profit-driven and use tricks to circumvent tuition limits.

The following month, NFTU President Chang Hsu-cheng (張旭政) called for an end to subsidies to private kindergartens, saying earmarking funds for such expensive, for-profit schools limits the funding that can be invested in public kindergartens. Chang said 70% of kindergartens in Taiwan are private, and although operators claim their students will get a head start on their academic ability, private kindergartens yield no noticeable benefits.

However, it is not surprising that many Taiwanese families send their children to private kindergartens and preschools, as access to public options is limited and granted through a lottery system, with the latest data showing that only 20% of children in most regions are selected for admission.

According to an amendment to Article 3 of the Early Childhood Education and Care Act (幼兒教育及照顧法) which came into force on June 29, children as young as two years old are eligible for a place in a kindergarten.

However, each county and municipality has its own regulations on how many preschool places must be provided and who is eligible. For example, the Taipei Ministry of Education’s preschool admission guidelines for the 2022-2023 school year indicate that five-year-olds would be given priority over younger children applying to public preschools. All preschools in the city accept applications on behalf of children as young as three years old, but only some preschools admit two-year-olds.

Yahoo News on June 2 reported that Taipei has 736 kindergartens, which can accommodate up to 8,509 children in total, after considering priority slots for children with disabilities. There are 6,518 places for children aged three to five and 1,991 places for two-year-olds, according to the report.

Taipei recorded 19,029 births in 2020, meaning there are about 10 times as many two-year-olds in the city as there are public preschool places for them.

The central government has increased subsidies for child care centers and kindergartens this year, but private school tuition fees remain a heavy burden for many families, and this adds to concerns parents may have about the safety of private schools and the qualifications of their teachers.

Universities in Taiwan have been reporting declining enrollment for several years, and some private universities have closed due to this issue. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find appropriate daycare and early education options for their children. The government should provide retraining and employment options for scholars at universities facing closures. Thus, it could solve two problems at once: it could boost early education programs and help educators facing unemployment to find new jobs. Academics could be offered a hybrid employment model with part-time work at a public preschool and part-time research or teaching at a university.

Whatever solution it implements, the government must find a way to provide better preschool options if it is serious about tackling the declining birth rate.

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