As schools come under increasing scrutiny for declining test scores and minority dropout rates nearing 50 percent, policymakers are asking the question: Do kindergartners hold the answer?
The Napolitano administration has proposed a new statewide full-day kindergarten program, saying the education system is "suffering" without one.
Yet, nearly all children in Arizona already attend kindergarten. An estimated 56 percent attend half-day programs, and 44 percent attend full-time. The question, then, is not whether kindergarten should be available, but in what form.
Currently, kindergarten is funded through parent fees, local taxes and grants, and run by districts or individual schools. To be sure, there may be some families that have been unable to find or afford the right program. But is a statewide program the answer?
Experience suggests that providing funds on an as-needed basis to families is a more effective approach. Thousands of families already meet the needs of their kindergartners, finding programs tailored to educational and family needs. In the instances when this is not the case, families without means could receive kindergarten grants redeemable at the public, charter or private school of their choice.
Consider this. According to The Arizona Republic, the state already spends $80 million annually on half-day kindergarten. That is enough money to give every kindergartner in the state $1,000 toward tuition. If the grants were restricted to children from lower-income families, for instance, grants could be more than $4,000 per student.
Compare that with the price on the administration's plan. The administration's projections price the plan at $170 million annually, not including current spending or the additional $100 million required to build new classrooms.
Part time for a reason
Importantly, kindergarten grants keep parents in the driver's seat and ensure a healthy array of curricula and programs. Despite the administration's claim that, "Extensive research shows that full-day kindergarten improves students' reading, writing, and math skills," many parents will likely continue sending their children to part-time programs, and with good reason.
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."
What is the difference? "On a reading scale that ranged from 0 to 72, the average kindergartner in a full-day program gained 10.6 points over the school year. For children in half-day kindergarten programs, the average gain was 9.4 points." Final reading scores are 32.1 and 31.3. For twice the amount of time spent in school, the trade-off for many parents may not be worthwhile.
The administration has made clear that all-day kindergarten is only a first step toward comprehensive state-run day care and preschool. Few would disagree with the administration's goal of ensuring "that all Arizona children begin school safe, healthy and ready to succeed." Fortunately, most young children are already on track.
Education Department data show the majority of children at the onset of kindergarten have the skills that are the foundation for school achievement: 94 percent recognize numbers and shapes and can count to 10; 92 percent are eager to learn; and 97 percent are in good health. American schoolchildren may even have the strongest start in the world.
By fourth grade, the first year for which international comparison data are available, U.S. students outscore their counterparts on reading tests in almost all European countries, including those with state-run preschools. Although our students sprint ahead early on, by 12th grade they are "D" students on the international scale. Putting children into school a year or two earlier will not resolve that.
It's about opportunity
In any case, the desirability of state-run kindergarten should not hinge on program costs or the value of kindergarten itself. Even more basic is the question of whether the government should entrench itself further in the schooling of children. On this question, the administration is swimming against a powerful tide.
In just 10 years, more than one-fifth of Arizona schools have become charter schools. More than 20,000 children are using Arizona's scholarship tax credit to attend private schools. There hardly appears to be a people's mandate for more state-run education.
A statewide program is a mark of a past era and relies on expanding the system that created the very problems it seeks to solve. A system of kindergarten grants builds on Arizona's progressive path, promising greater opportunity for all children.