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Australia's Free Child Care Program


As more states reopen businesses and services, or try to, there could be a big hitch - no child care. Parents all across the country are facing the prospect of not being able to send their kids to school or summer camp or any other forms of child care for months to come.

In Australia, the government has taken a different approach - keeping child care centers open and making them free for parents for three months. Australia has fewer coronavirus cases - about 7,000 total, with just over 100 deaths so far. But the country has experienced similar issues as the U.S. while shutting down to slow the spread of the virus.

To learn more, we called Conor Duffy in Sydney. He's the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's parenting and education reporter. He says some Australians were surprised that the free child care plan was approved by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a conservative seen as having a political style similar to President Trump's.

CONOR DUFFY: Scott Morrison's government is a conservative government, and some in the industry here and the opposition were very pessimistic about what sort of aid they were going to get. They had very low expectations. And then right at the start of April, Australia's education minister, Dan Tehan, and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, basically came out and announced free child care. It turns out they'd been working in the background in secret, often until very late in the night, with their top public servants in Canberra coming up with this scheme.

And so for three months, parents stopped having to pay for child care. In Australia, we have a system that gives a really high rebate back to parents. But all copayments for parents stopped on April 2, and that continues until the start of July.

Interestingly, the government's made a commitment that if it's going to scrap it, it will tell industry in about the next four or five days. So there's a lot of nervous parents in Australia right now waiting to see what happens because free child care is something they thought would never happen. It's long been an ambition of the other side of politics in Australia, but it was, you know, Australia's current government that announced it, even if it's just short-term.

MARTIN: How did the prime minister - how did he argue this? I mean, as you noted, I mean, this has been a goal of progressives for some time. But, you know, people have been reluctant to take it on because of the expense. I mean, you have to have low adult-to-child ratios - you know, all the safety protocols, all of the above. So how did the Morrison government make the argument for it?

DUFFY: The government argued it essentially on the basis that it was crucial to keeping our economy going - that everyone that was considered an essential worker needed a place to be able to take their kids - that it was also crucial just for people who were trying to hang onto their jobs. And they also made the point arguing about vulnerable children who really need this care.

MARTIN: Can everybody participate, or is this only for essential workers?

DUFFY: Yeah, it's for everyone. Child care centers have said that they have had some capacity problems accommodating everyone. But overall, there's no means testing on this - or no income testing, if you like. Children of essential workers, hospital staff are prioritized. Next in line are children that are considered vulnerable. But then after that, basically, yes, it's open for everyone.

People are still a little reluctant, Michel, to send their kids to child care - some for health reasons, some who dropped out when they lost their jobs at the peak of the pandemic. So overall, attendance is only about roughly 65% of what it usually is.

MARTIN: That was Conor Duffy with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney. He told us the Australian government is expected to announce soon whether its free child care program will be extended.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "OCCASIONAL MAGIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.