Merrill Pushes Mandatory Kindergarten, State-Aid Formula in N.H.
In his first comprehensive blueprint on education since being elected in 1992, Gov. Stephen Merrill of New Hampshire has promised to seek funding to institute public kindergarten for all the state's children and called for changes in the state's school-aid formula.
Mr. Merrill last month proposed using revenues from a property tax on the Seabrook nuclear-power plant and the elimination of business-tax credits to help implement kindergarten statewide.
In addition, the state has again hired John Augenblick, a Denver school-finance consultant, to re-examine its current aid formula, known informally as "the Augenblick formula'' since its introduction in 1985.
Even some of Governor Merrill's critics greeted the kindergarten proposal with praise.
Currently, only about 60 percent of kindergarten-age children in the Granite State attend public kindergarten. An additional 20 percent are enrolled in private programs.
But the school-finance section of the plan was greeted with more criticism.
The proposal comes in the wake of a landmark decision in January, when the state supreme court ruled unanimously that New Hampshire is obligated to pay for public education. (See Education Week, Jan. 12, 1994.)
New Hampshire currently ranks last among states in the percentage of funds it sends to districts, providing about 7 percent of the cost of education.
Mr. Merrill proposed that the state respond to the court mandate by guaranteeing a minimum level of aid for all districts, concentrating its funds on the poorest districts.
"The Governor's position that the present state foundation-aid appropriation of $47 million is proper, and can be reskewed [toward property-poor towns], is a failure to recognize the court's decision that the state has a duty to adequately fund public education for all children in the state,'' Ralph Degnan Hough, the Republican president of the Senate, charged.
Rep. Douglas E. Hall, a Democrat, suggested that the Governor's proposed changes would have little effect if the total amount of state aid remains unchanged.
"The Governor is not proposing more money, just rearranging which districts will get how much,'' Mr. Hall said.
'Come to the Table'
Mr. Merrill's opponents for governor were also critical of the plan.
"I think that the kindergarten incentive in Governor Merrill's plan is the most significant part of a pretty insignificant plan,'' declared Fred Bramante, the owner of a music-store chain known as Daddy's Junky Music and a challenger to Mr. Merrill in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
Mr. Bramante was appointed to the state board of education by the previous Governor, Judd Gregg.
"To me, the property-tax issue and education are ... one and the same issue,'' Mr. Bramante said. "If you don't address property taxes, you can't address schools.''
While Mr. Bramante's candidacy does not appear to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent, observers say, his colorful antics have dominated local campaign coverage.
Meanwhile, Sen. Wayne D. King, Mr. Merrill's Democratic opponent, has promoted the notion of using revenues from a new "Keno'' lottery game to institute statewide kindergarten and fully fund the Augenblick formula.
"Since January, this is the first indication that the Governor is willing to come to the table,'' Mr. Hough said. "We should concentrate on the things that would tend to unite us, and work on resolving the things that would divide us.''
Katharine Eneguess, a vice president of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, praised the document's support for such statewide reform efforts as instituting school-based management, reforming assessment, and developing curriculum frameworks.