It's the pits. Arizona's preschool and day care system is loosely regulated and chronically underfunded. We need a state board for school readiness to plan, coordinate and administer the system.
Or so a handful of self-professed child advocates argue.
The truth is that children's scores have been climbing steadily upward on tests of IQ and kindergarten readiness for generations. U.S. Department of Education data show most pre-kindergartners now have the social and academic building blocks for achievement. Ninety-four percent recognize numbers and shapes and can count to 10. Ninety-two percent are eager to learn, and all but 3 percent are healthy.
Some people still insist that we copy Europe's state-run system. "It's staggering how far ahead European countries are in investing in this type of education," said a Committee for Economic Development spokesman in a recent Arizona Republic story.
Are preschoolers in Europe really better off? In France and Spain, 90 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool. Yet by age 9, the earliest age for which comparison data are available, American children outperform those students and nearly all of their European counterparts on reading, math and science tests.
Who should be copying whom?
Although U.S. students sprint ahead in the elementary years, they slow to a crawl in adolescence. By 12th grade, they are "D" students on the international scale. Sending toddlers to preschool will not solve that problem.
The push for European-style preschool is led largely by a few ideologues who believe day care expenses should be paid by taxpayers out of "fairness" to working moms, and a floundering education establishment that prefers finger-pointing to real solutions.
Consider the American Federation of Teachers' call for a "national commitment" to schooling all 3- and 4-year-olds. At first glance, the federation's enthusiasm for preschool might seem paradoxical. At an annual cost of $8,000 per child (according to National Education Association estimates), preschool puts a massive strain on state budgets. Financing two additional grades undermines opportunities to increase salaries and hire new teachers.
But as the establishment comes under increasing scrutiny for poor student achievement, the leadership has another concern: waning public support. The percentage of Americans with "a great deal" or "a lot" of confidence in public schools has fallen from 58 percent in 1973 to 49 percent in 1988 to 36 percent in 1999, according to Gallup polls. Support for alternatives to standard schools has simultaneously blossomed.
Federation President Sandra Feldman says the notion that schools fail poor children "is a total myth." The reason for the achievement gap, she says, "can be found in the 68 percent of a child's waking hours outside of school versus the 32 percent spent in school." To drive the point home, Feldman also proposes extended-day, extended-year and summer schooling.
But private schools aren't making excuses; they're getting the job done. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, mean reading scores for fourth-grade Black and Hispanic students in private schools are 20 points higher than their respective national means. If Black students across the nation had the same scores as Black students in private schools, the Black/White achievement gap would shrink from 33 points to 13 points; for Hispanics, it would move from 29 points to 9. Even controlling for income levels, the private school advantage holds.
Naturally, most officials hedge when asked whether preschool should be mandatory. But supporters call it a "necessity" for every child, a clear indication that calls for compulsory attendance loom in the shadows. For instance, Bill Suchmann, a Vermont legislator who introduced a bill to study the cost of compulsory preschool, denies that he advocates compulsory attendance - but says only compulsion can guarantee "equal educational opportunity."
Others are more upfront. D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous introduced his "Compulsory School Attendance Amendment Act," which would make school, well, compulsory, for every preschooler in the nation's capital.
Not surprisingly, the agenda for universal preschool has little parental support. According to the non-partisan organization Public Agenda, 68 percent of self-identified children's advocates say government should move toward a universal, national child care system, but only 27 percent of parents share that vision.
Legislators can raise achievement by arming parents with an ability to choose from a wider variety of K-12 schools. Columbia University scholars recently examined 35 studies of choice programs and reported that "a sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes." Likewise, an examination of reading and math test scores in Arizona finds similar effects from charter school attendance.
Parents are loosening the government's grip on education, even as the establishment seeks to extend that hold to preschoolers. Parents may not be "certified experts," but they do know what's best for their kids.
--Darcy Olsen is executive director of the Goldwater Institute and author of reports on child care, preschool and educational freedom, including "Universal Preschool is No Golden Ticket," a Cato Institute policy analysis.