Legislation drops ax on kindergarten

Last modified: 2/9/2011 12:00:00 AM
New Hampshire would stop requiring school districts to offer access to public kindergarten under a bill that drew parents and education advocates to a House hearing yesterday.

Several school districts did not offer kindergarten until fall 2009, after the grade level was included in the 2007 state definition of an adequate education. Now a lawmaker from Hudson, the last district to agree to provide kindergarten, is seeking to repeal the requirement. Rep. Jonathan Maltz, a Republican, said the law is unconstitutional because the state does not pay the full cost of providing kindergarten.

"I don't have anything against kindergarten," Maltz said. "I just don't think that a town should be forced to do something it said it didn't want to do, and the state not pay for it."

The head of instruction with the state Department of Education said the bill would prevent the state from paying school districts for kindergarten education. The state first contributed to the cost of kindergarten in the school year beginning in 2009, said Kathleen Murphy, director for the Division of Instruction.

At a hearing yesterday, Patricia Ewen, an early childhood specialist in the Department of Education, testified that children who cannot read well in elementary school are more likely to be put in special education, lose interest in school and have difficulty holding jobs. New Hampshire kindergartens enroll 11,969 children, she said.

All 50 states now require access to public kindergarten, said Erika Argersinger, the public policy director of the Children's Alliance of New Hampshire.

Kelly Laflamme of Penacook told members of the House Education Committee that she and her husband had paid $24,000 in a year for accredited child care because research indicates early childhood education increases the chance children will do well in school and become productive adults.

"This bill is dangerous," she said. "It's a matter of saving a relatively few dollars today while wasting an opportunity to invest in our future."

Democrats yesterday came out against the bill. Gov. John Lynch sent a letter to the committee urging members to support access to public kindergarten throughout the state.

"The independent research is clear about the importance of kindergarten to the education of our children and the contribution it makes to ensuring later academic success," Lynch said in his letter.

House Minority Leader Terie Norelli said children who attend kindergarten are less likely to drop out of school or be arrested. She said eliminating access to public kindergarten would harm children and place a financial burden on parents.

"Our children's future is at stake," said Norelli, a Democrat from Portsmouth.

Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt of Salem said in a statement that House Republican leadership is reserving judgment on the bill.

"House leadership believes it is worth having a discussion on this legislation and hearing from both sides," he said.

The state has paid $2 million to six school districts to help them start kindergarten programs under the 2008 law. The bill sponsored by Maltz would allow the districts to stop their kindergarten programs without having to repay the money.

Rep. Peter Schmidt, a Democrat from Dover, told committee members he witnessed the poor writing ability of young people when he taught at the University of New Hampshire. Schmidt said making kindergarten optional would damage the state's educational system.

"If kindergarten wasn't a good idea, it wouldn't be practiced in all 50 states," Schmidt said.

Also testifying against the bill was Danielle Collins, a Manchester resident who used to teach children aged 3 to 5 in Head Start, a national program for children from poor families.

"It gives kids that advantage, especially to the children who are lower poverty," Collins said. "Kindergarten for some of these kids is their first educational experience."

Maltz, the bill's sponsor, said the testimony about lasting positive effects of kindergarten was beside the point.

"That may well be true," he said. "It's not really germane to the actual concern I have, which was, this is a fundamental violation of the New Hampshire Constitution."

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)




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