Two major reform strategies dominate the education reform debate in Arizona: first, the expansion of public school early childhood education, and second, the expansion of parental choice in education. Preschool enthusiasts say that preschool results in higher student achievement. In her second State of the State address, Arizona governor Janet Napolitano asserted:
The data is simply overwhelming that the combination of quality childcare and full-day kindergarten will reap rewards many times the financial investment we make now. Our children will be better prepared to learn, they will be less likely to drop out of high school, and they will have higher academic achievement if we start them off on a stronger footing.
School choice supporters believe that when schools have to compete for students, student achievement improves, even for students remaining in the public school system.
Arizona policymakers have tried both strategies in recent years, making it possible to empirically examine how successful the strategies have been. Examining test score data from Pima County elementary schools and early education survey data from school districts across Arizona, this study evaluates the relative efficacy of the preschool and school choice strategies.
The data show that students in schools with all-day kindergarten programs have statistically significant higher 3rd-grade test scores, but there is no impact on 5th-grade scores. This finding is consistent with previous research. Schools facing significant competition for students, whether through public or private options, demonstrate significant test score gains.
The findings of this empirical analysis demonstrate that early childhood education expansion is an expensive reform that delivers only transitory benefits. School choice uses resources more efficiently and delivers improved academic achievement.