Gov. Janet Napolitano is championing a plan for state-run, full-day kindergarten. On its heels, she is advancing state-supported preschool. The ultimate goal, as she told the National Task Force on Public Education, is to make preschool "a lockstep component of public schooling."
The governor does not specify details, but the implication is that the government should run schools for 4-year-olds, just as it does for older students. If that sounds far-fetched, we need only look to Europe.
Like many advocates of government preschool, Sandra Feldman, American Federation of Teachers president emeritus, holds up France as a model. She says the United States "can't afford not to" adopt the French system, which enrolls nearly all 3- and 4-year-olds in schools. The German and Italian systems are parallel.
Do those systems better equip children for success in school? Non, nein and no.
U.S. students routinely outscore the international competition in fourth grade, the earliest year for which comparison data is available. In reading, for instance, U.S. fourth-graders score 542. The international average is 500.
In addition to being more literate at earlier ages than the French, Italians and Germans, U.S. students have above-average math scores, and their science performance is third only to South Korea and Japan.
Unfortunately, the U.S. advantage does not hold. By 12th grade, U.S. students score in the bottom-third on international tests. Whatever the cause of that decline, preschool doesn't hold the answer.
Arizonans pay more than $400 million annually for government early-education programs, including day care, preschool and kindergarten. That figure does not include multiple funding streams used by districts for kindergarten or supplemental parent fees.
Importantly, the government collects virtually no information on how that spending affects student learning. The Legislature could usher in accountability by requiring an annual impact assessment of those expenditures. It is a reasonable expectation.
A more fundamental concern with the governor's plan is the marginalization of parents in the lives of their children.
Implicit in the governor's plan is the presumption that parents aren't up to the job. But it doesn't take a roomful of advisers or a "School Readiness Board" to prepare children for school. It takes love, time, and simple activities like talking, singing, and reading to children, routine activities carried out by parents every day.
With or without preschool, most children entering kindergarten have basic skills - understanding that print reads left to right, knowing letters of the alphabet, reading numbers, recognizing shapes and counting.
Interestingly, only 10 percent of kindergarten teachers say knowing the letters of the alphabet and counting are very important by this age. What do they say are the most important traits for 5-year-olds? Good health and an eagerness to learn.
There's a telling story attributed to former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. An advocate was trying to persuade the senator that she knew better than parents how to educate their children. Gramm asked, "Do you think you know my children's needs better than I do?"
She said, "Yes."
So he said, "OK, what are their names?"
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are some things government isn't suited for. Parenting is one of them.