Two of the three Republicans hoping to be the next state school superintendent say full-day kindergarten is a bad idea.
At a debate Tuesday night, John Huppenthal said that, for parents, the programs are "a safe place to put their child.''
But Huppenthal said there is research which shows that by fifth grade, youngsters who are in full-time programs in kindergarten actually fall behind their peers in math and reading than their counterparts who attended only half-day programs.
That's also the assessment of Beth Price.
"About half a day is good if you really pack it in well,'' she said. And while Price wasn't willing to say that full-day programs actually hurt children, "the research tells us that, sooner or later, it doesn't make any difference.''
Only Margaret Dugan, who had been a teacher and now is deputy state school superintendent, said her foes are off base.
"When all kids can read at the end of kindergarten, I think it's a good thing,'' she said.
Dugan acknowledged that the programs come at a cost. In fact, state lawmakers, in one of their cost-cutting measures, eliminated state funding for the full-day programs to save $220 million a year.
Some districts have continued the programs, though, either by absorbing the cost or charging tuition to parents who want the day-long sessions.
"There's a lot of other waste in education,'' Dugan said, saying she would have preferred lawmakers to cut elsewhere and save the full-day program.
After the debate, which aired on KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate, Huppenthal said it might seem counter-intuitive to say that more time in kindergarten leads to lower academic performance down the road. But he said it isn't that simple.
"What they found in the study was there were emotional effects on the kids,'' he said, including loss of motivation and more anti-social behavior.
"So they had a slight academic bump at the end of kindergarten,'' Huppenthal continued. "But that complete dissipated (and) their attitudes towards school totally changed.''
Price said her conclusion comes from information she got from the head of early childhood development at Central Arizona College where she had worked.
"You don't start students that early and inundate them with a lot of stuff in kindergarten,'' she said. "They're not ready for it.''
The state historically paid only for half-day kindergarten. But that changed in 2005 in a deal between then Gov. Janet Napolitano and legislative leaders: They would provide full-day financing in exchange for Napolitano agreeing not to veto a program sought by many Republicans to provide state vouchers for some children to attend private and parochial schools.
Jan Brewer, the current governor, initially balked at cutting the funds.
"I know that, on polling, almost 75 percent of the public, they do support all-day kindergarten,'' she said. In the end, though, Brewer went along with the change to balance the budget.