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Monday, Sep. 19, 2011

EDITORIAL

Advancing to preschool care

As part of its policy to support children and child-rearing families, the Democratic Party of Japan government is pushing the idea of integrating yochi-en (kindergartens), which are for the education of preschoolers, and hoiku-jo (day-care facilities for children).

The DPJ government aims to reduce the number of parents and children who must wait a long time before the children are accepted by preschool facilities, and to simplify related administrative matters.

Yochi-en are under the jurisdiction of the education ministry, while hoiku-jo are under the health and welfare ministry.

Hoiku-jo are equipped with kitchens and provide meals to children. Yochi-en, without kitchens, don't provide meal services. Hoiku-jo help working parents, mostly mothers, by taking care of children, in some cases, for more than 10 hours a day.

Behind the DPJ government's integration plan is the fact that more and more mothers opt to work, or have no choice other than to work, to supplement their husbands' salaries. As a result, there are fewer vacancies for children in hoiku-jo.

In the meantime, some yochi-en are operating below acceptance quotas or have been closed as Japan's population of children continue to decline. The government hopes to utilize available rooms at yochi-en to take care of the children of working mothers, thus decreasing the length of time parents and children have to wait before admission.

The government plans to submit a related bill to the Diet in 2012 and start integrating yochi-en and hoiku-jo step by step in fiscal 2013. In principle, yochi-en and hoiku-jo will be integrated and one government ministry will oversee preschool facilities.

At present, different subsidies are given to yochi-en and hoiku-jo. These subsidies will also be integrated.

Facilities that can meet new national standards will be able to receive the new subsidies and will be called kodomo-en (literally gardens for children).

But some yochi-en have resisted shouldering the increased burden of providing day-care services as provided by hoiku-jo to children. These yochi-en will be allowed to continue to exist. Thus full integration of yochi-en and hoiku-jo will not come immediately.

Although the full integration will not be achieved immediately, there will be some improvement over the current system. Under the new system, in principle, not only full-time workers but also part-time workers and workers who work at night can have their children taken care of by preschool facilities.

Parents who have special difficulty taking care of children for various reasons — such as a parent's illness, the period before and after giving birth, job-hunting, advanced studies at school or preparation for a professional qualification — can also send them to such facilities.

Municipalities will decide whether parents' conditions really warrant their children being admitted to preschool facilities. If they decide that children are eligible, they will oblige preschool facilities to accept them.

But the new system could cause some problems for children and parents, primarily due to the fact that business enterprises and nonprofit organizations will be allowed to open and run preschool facilities. The government will only allow those entities that meet certain standards to enter the preschool care business.

It will also set officially established fees. But preschool facilities will be allowed to provide additional services and require higher charges from parents. This could lead to a situation in which children will receive different levels of day-care services depending on their parents' incomes.

At present, municipalities choose day-care facilities for eligible parents and children, depending on their needs and conditions. Under the new system, parents have to choose and contact facilities themselves. This could be a burden for them. Some parents may have to visit many facilities to find vacancies.

When parents find that facilities' conditions are acceptable, they and the facilities sign a contract concerning the admission of children.

Under the new system, the possibility cannot be ruled out that business enterprises that start preschool facilities will give priority to maximizing profits and thus fail to provide proper day-care services. The government, municipalities and parents need to closely watch their behavior and services

The government estimates that it will need an additional ¥1 trillion in fiscal 2015 to increase the number of preschool facilities and workers who work there. The necessary funds are supposed to be generated through the reform of the social welfare and tax systems. Some ¥700 billion is supposed to come from a consumption tax raise.

Since the DPJ government is unstable and the reconstruction from the March 11 quake and tsunami will cost a lot, it is not certain whether sufficient funds can be secured for the new system of preschool facilities.

More importantly, the government should do its utmost to stabilize the employment situation, shorten working hours and improve working conditions so that workers can take a long enough paid holiday to take care of babies or sick children.



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