Children who start early start strong. This has become the mantra for ‘early child education’ advocates nationwide. While it is easy to agree with the statement, whether or not state-run extensive kindergarten and pre-k programs accomplish such goals is open to debate.

Like New Mexico’s pre-k program that began in the fall of 2005, most of these programs are still in their early stages, making it difficult to adequately gauge their results. The exception to this rule is Arizona, which has had full-day pre-k programs in the Phoenix area dating back to 1998.

The children that took part in those original pre-k programs were fifth graders in 2005, thus allowing the results of such programs to be quantified over an adequate time period. While advocates of the plan including Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano have argued that “the data is simply overwhelming” that full day state sponsored kindergarten and pre-k will “reap rewards many times the financial investment we make now,” preliminary data from the program shows no long term improvements.

The Goldwater Institute in Arizona recently published a report detailing the effects of Arizona’s pilot initiative. The report called “Putting Arizona Education Reform to the Test: School Choice and Early Education Expansion” should be required reading for New Mexico policymakers as New Mexico looks to expand its own pre-k program.

While kids in the Arizona program show marked improvement in their standardized test scores through the third grade, those positive results were gone by the fifth grade. Likewise, the pre-k programs in Arizona have done nothing to better the performance of late elementary school children. Both initiatives were supposed to increase student performance, yet the modest educational gains shown early on have absolutely no staying power.

Thus, taxpayers in Arizona, not to mention those in New Mexico and many of the other states with pre-k programs, are paying millions of dollars every year for a program that may produce nothing at all. Absent strong academic gains, pre-k programs accomplish nothing other than granting more power and jobs to the government education establishment.

Of course, these groups already have tremendous power. That is a major reason why individual spending per student has increased in New Mexico and across the nation. In fact, in New Mexico, real, inflation-adjusted spending per student went up 50 percent between 1982 and 2003, currently standing at over $7000. Yet student performance has remained steady at best.

The legislation that laid the foundation for eventual adoption of a universal early education program was passed here in New Mexico during 2005, the so-called “Year of the Child.”

The next year the legislature allocated a further $8 million in recurring funds as well as $5.5 million for construction, planning, and start-up costs. Only now is the legislature looking into the feasibility of creating an “Office of School Readiness” to actually monitor pre-k programs across the state.

Before we commit millions more dollars to all-day pre-k, legislators need to make sure that we are funding better educational futures for our children, not just more jobs for unionized teachers. Otherwise, we will simply follow the same path Arizona has; another ineffective government education program that only maintains the status quo.

Our education system needs reform. The answer, at least from what we have seen in Arizona, seems not to lie with more years of schooling. Before further expanding this program, New Mexico’s legislators might want to take a look at educational choice tax credit programs that have been adopted in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, just to name a few.

Rather than simply giving our children to New Mexico’s current, broken education system for another year and spending millions more, tax credits would allow taxpayers to ensure that some of their money is spent on giving poor children better educational choices. In the long run, innovation can solve these issues, while throwing more money at the problem will only exacerbate things.

STEPHEN FORD is a policy analyst with the Rio Grande Foundation, a non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization that promotes prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.