PHOENIX-In Washington, D.C., Thursday, April 22, 2004, it was announced that Arizona governor Janet Napolitano would serve as co-chair of the new Task Force on Public Education in the 21st Century. Napolitano explained, "We are trying to prepare students for a high-tech world, but we are doing so by putting them through a school system designed in the 20th century."
Goldwater Institute education analyst Dr. Vicki Murray praised the Governor's statement for its visionary rhetoric and hopes equally visionary policies will follow. However, recent history is not encouraging. Napolitano's signature education initiative is statewide full-day kindergarten. "A centralized state-run program is a mark of a bygone era," notes Murray, "and would expand the very 20th century school system that created the problems the Governor seeks to solve."
Murray argues that an expanded kindergarten system is a solution in search of a problem. According to the Governor's own Kindergarten and Preschool Survey, "Ninety-six percent of children in the most poor districts [sic] (50 percent or more of children in poverty) are enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs." An estimated 56 percent of all kindergarten-age children in Arizona attend half-day programs, and 44 percent attend full-time. According to the National Center for Education Statistics' examination of 22,000 kindergartners nationwide, "In terms of kindergarten program type (i.e. all-day or part-day), there is little meaningful difference in the level of children's end-of-year reading and mathematics knowledge."
Education Department data show the majority of children starting kindergarten have the skills that are the foundation for school achievement. By fourth grade, U.S. students outscore their counterparts on reading tests in almost all European countries, including those with state-run preschools. Although U.S. students sprint ahead early on, by 12th grade they are "D" students on the international scale. All-day kindergarten will not resolve that.
In her address, the Governor urged listeners to consider the "intergenerational legacy" society will leave to today's students: "What kind of education did they get? What kind of opportunities were available to them? And what kind of world, or universe, did we give them access to?" Murray notes that a universal voucher would give every Arizona student immediate access to the best education Arizona can provide-public, charter or private. Recent research by Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby suggests that if a voucher plan were adopted in Arizona, the achievement gap between minority and Anglo students in the metropolitan Phoenix area could close within 10 years. "Now that's a visionary, research-backed reform for the 21st century," said Murray.