The coronavirus crisis that has now lasted for over a year has hurt the income of many families. It is time to table the Reform Party's 2019 Riigikogu elections promise of abolishing kindergarten place fees, Züleyxa Izmailova writes.
I will admit that the idea to abolish kindergarten fees came off as populist and more akin to throwing money out of an airplane than a serious election promise leading up to Riigikogu elections.
Populist because most families were not struggling with the fees at the time and because such a measure could backfire in the regional dimension if not carefully considered. It could negatively manifest in the competition between poorer and wealthier local governments, favoring urbanization and speeding up peripherization.
But also because the fee is decided by the local government, while the proposal was made in the context of Riigikogu elections.
While I was still very much skeptical last year, the promise suddenly shines in a whole new light after a year spent in the coronavirus crisis.
The cost of the instrument was not mentioned at the time. The finance ministry analysis of parties' election promises brought no more clarity. The ministry said the cost could not be calculated because of the vague phrasing of the proposal. It is to be believed that ministry officials put together such overviews voluntarily and the day simply does not have enough hours for a more thorough analysis.
Whatever the case, there is one party that has provided an indication of some sort. The Social Democrats say that abolishing kindergarten place fees would cost Estonia €65 million a year.
Now, that the Reform Party has returned to power after a short break, the exact cost of the measure could be calculated and the promise fulfilled. More so as all relevant portfolios are held by the prime minister's party.
Reform's coalition partners are almost sure to support the initiative. The program of the Center Party includes free preschool education and kindergarten catering.
Then Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center Party – ed.) promised to include these ambitions in the planned preschool education reform bill. Unfortunately, the reform that recently passed its first reading after doing the rounds in the parliament for years makes no mention of abolishing kindergarten place fees. The document would also still have parents pay for kindergarten catering, despite the Center Party's promise of free kindergarten and school meals for everyone.
Free organic food for kindergartens
Free meals is an idea worth pursuing. As an unexpected but pleasant surprise, PM Kaja Kallas tabled an item from the Estonian Greens' program at a coalition talks press conference on January 20 – offering organic food in schools and kindergartens. The Greens welcome this initiative. It is the only way to go as all children deserve healthy food that is free of dangerous pesticides.
That is why the Greens launched the organic food project in Tallinn kindergartens. While food that is grown organically or without spraying it with toxins is still somewhat more expensive than food grown with the help of pesticides in shops, its price is entirely competitive when one buys wholesale and direct from growers.
However, the economic crisis has made organic food even more expensive for the ordinary consumer. The government deciding in favor of organic food in schools and kindergartens would constitute an investment in the health of our children and one fewer problem for families.
Despite the PM clearly raising the issue of organic food for educational institutions at the press conference, it is not mentioned in the coalition agreement. That said, not everything the PM does needs to be included there and the Greens stand ready to share their experience from the Tallinn organic food project and lend a hand.
Families with children need help overcoming the crisis
Latvia has a one-off benefit of €200 for people taking care of children and adults with disabilities and pensioners. Families hit by the crisis are eligible for a benefit of €500 per child.
These kinds of crisis measures would also help Estonian families because times are tough. People need to cope in a situation where they have lost in income as a result of being out of work while utility costs are mounting.
People forced to spend more time at home has added to water and electricity bills, not to mention the time parents have spent becoming teachers, IT specialists, caterers, cleaners and correctional officers. Especially in large families.
The government must start thinking about crisis and recovery measures for families and the plan to abolishing kindergarten place fees should be on the table today in terms of the next academic year.
It is safe to say I am speaking on behalf of a lot of voters in this. At least three parties included abolishing kindergarten place fees in their platforms for the previous Riigikogu elections.
Several local governments have stopped charging the place fee at least temporarily, while parents need greater support considering the economic situation. The measure would greatly help households with several preschool children as well as single parents.
Therefore, carefully considered execution where the abolition does not happen at the expense of teachers' salaries and quality of preschool education would make this plan worthwhile in the perspective of the 2021 supplementary state budget as next fall is just around the corner. The state budget strategy could plot a wider course for free preschool education.
Editor: Marcus Turovski