Kindergarten places still beyond the reach of many despite the law

Põltsamaa Municipal Kindergarten, now Central Estonia's largest, was opened Wednesday. August 31, 2022.
Põltsamaa Municipal Kindergarten, now Central Estonia's largest, was opened Wednesday. August 31, 2022. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

Even though the law obligates local governments to offer all local children a place in a kindergarten, which obligation was emphasized in a recent Supreme Court decision, the problem persists. The Ministry of Education and Research is thinking of ways to close the service gap between kindergartens and daycare centers.

The Preschool Child Care Institutions Act (KELS) obligates city or rural municipality governments to offer all children aged 18 months to seven years the chance to attend kindergarten locally, if at least one of their parents lives in the local government's territory.

The Supreme Court found in a ruling from early February that the law clearly obligates local governments to offer kindergarten places, adding that many are nevertheless struggling to comply. The decision was the culmination of a third lawsuit in which the top court found that local governments cannot refuse to provide kindergarten places. Estonia's justice chancellor has said as much.

Despite the law and repeated Supreme Court judgments, many parents are still in a situation where their local kindergarten simply does not have vacancies.

Maila Rajamets, head of the ministry's preschool education department, assured ERR that parents can demand a kindergarten place for children aged 18 months and over. Children up to three years old can be sent to a daycare instead of a kindergarten but only if the parent agrees. Consent must be given knowingly and voluntarily," Rajamets emphasized.

"We are working on ways of making the services offered by kindergartens and daycares more even, without cutting back in terms of quality," she said, adding that the ministry plans to meet with local government representatives to listen to concrete proposals.

Rajamets also said that a corresponding bill is being put together.

Daycares: They're killing us off

The Estonian Daycare Association voiced its dissatisfaction with the current situation in a letter sent to the ministry in January. It found that current legislation and regulations are discriminating against and killing off daycares because they are not on par with kindergartens or nurseries.

"Parents refuse to use daycare services, demanding local governments pay compensation or make kindergarten places available. This is increasingly done with the help of courts and is accompanied by a public slander campaign," the association wrote.

Even though the law classifies daycare as a social service, the association maintains that daycares offer the same level of education and childcare as kindergartens. The association is critical of local governments for slashing daycare support sums compared to kindergartens and suggests that parents naturally do not want to use a service that costs more.

"There are daycares in Estonia that sport a very high quality of service, at times higher than what nurseries (kindergartens for children 18-36 months – ed.) offer, while the law does not treat them as an equal service provider," representatives of daycares said.

Another problem they highlighted is that while kindergarten fees are tax deductible because they're education institutions, the same is not possible for daycare fees.

Daycares are afraid that before Estonia can pass new preschool and childcare legislation, daycares will disappear because the current system is sending parents scrambling for a kindergarten place instead.

Creating necessary number of places in municipal kindergartens requires millions

The Harju County Local Governments Association turned to the ministry last fall because several Harju County municipalities, including Harku, Kiili, Rae, Saku, Saue and Viimsi, are unable to ensure children up to three years of age municipal kindergarten places.

Creating room for all 2,500 children currently without a municipal kindergarten place in Harju County would require constructing 25 new buildings accommodating six classes each. The local governments do not believe such an investment to be sensible. That is why the said municipalities have both municipal and private kindergartens and daycares.

The association proposed amending legislation to allow local governments to replace kindergarten places with daycare places for children 18-36 months of age and treat the service offered to children up to three years of age as a daycare service universally.

"Such an approach would help curb the subjective practice of preferring kindergarten places over daycare and ensure equal tax treatment if the Income Tax Act remains unchanged," the local government association said.

The ministry said in its reply that it is working on evening out the quality of service in kindergartens and daycares as well as making sure daycare fees would be tax deductible in the future.

Parents to retain the right to demand a kindergarten place

Maila Rajamets said that as the law allows local governments to also procure the service from private childcare institutions, the situation where children in so-called Tallinn Golden Ring municipalities attend municipal and private kindergartens and daycares is above board.

"In either case, the local government is still responsible for making sure families have access to the service according to KELS," she said.

However, unlike kindergartens, which offer an education service, daycares qualify as a social service and are not obligated to offer preschool education.

Rajamets said that even though daycares are excellent partners for local governments and offer a high-quality service, the distinction means that the two cannot be equated and parents will retain their right to demand a kindergarten place.

Rajamets promised that all interest groups will be involved in putting together the new preschool education and childcare law.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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