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N.H. Lawmakers Back First-Ever State Aid for Kindergarten

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After years of coming up short, the New Hampshire legislature has finally passed a bill providing the first-ever state funding for kindergarten, allowing Gov. Stephen Merrill to check off one of his top campaign promises before he leaves office.

The $5 million measure, approved 226-120 in the House and 18-5 in the Senate late last month, will grant $500 per kindergarten-age child to school districts that now operate kindergartens or that open them. Mr. Merrill, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill.

But officials in New Hampshire, which lags behind every other state in providing access to public kindergarten, did not go so far as requiring all districts to offer a program for 5-year-olds. Only about 65 percent of the state's districts now offer kindergarten.

"It is certainly not what we had hoped for, since there are situations where kindergarten will still not be available in some communities," said Paul Krohne, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association."But we are pleased that for the first time in our state's history, it will provide direct financial support for kindergarten."

Last year, Mr. Merrill proposed appropriating $17 million for kindergarten--$2,400 per child toward start-up costs in districts without kindergartens, plus 20 percent of any needed construction costs, and $100 per student in districts already operating kindergartens.

But the state is facing a $60 million deficit this year in its $1.6 billion budget. And many observers regard the investment in kindergarten as a strong sign that lawmakers were resolved to not let the issue die again.

The kindergarten issue has been batted around as long as many of the state's policymakers can remember. The school boards' association, Mr. Krohne recalled, has had kindergarten funding on its legislative agenda since he took his job 11 years ago.

A Long Time Coming

Over the years, the refrain "New Hampshire is the only state that does not require kindergarten" was repeated so often that it became a favorite tag line of politicians and a staple of news stories.

That assertion is actually false. In fact, 15 other states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico do not require school districts to offer kindergarten, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver group that tracks state education policy.

But the claim is not entirely off the mark. New Hampshire is acknowledged as the state with the least access to public kindergarten. In other states where it is not technically required, most districts offer it anyway, according to Helen Schotanus, the curriculum supervisor for primary education and reading in the New Hampshire education department.

A 1982 survey conducted by Ms. Schotanus' predecessor found that all but seven states offered public kindergarten to 90 percent or more of children. Follow-up surveys revealed that by this year, New Hampshire was the only state not meeting the 90 percent mark.

Currently about 50 percent of New Hampshire children attend public kindergartens. Another 35 percent attend private kindergartens, and 15 percent do not attend any kindergarten.

"The saddest calls I get are in August when a family has moved to New Hampshire, never realizing a number of our districts don't have kindergarten," Ms. Schotanus said. "They go to register their child and there is no public kindergarten, and then they find the private kindergartens cost more than they can afford, or they are all full."

A 'Significant Victory'

Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said that it is encouraging to see New Hampshire joining the national trend of expanding school options. "For the families of New Hampshire, it is a very significant victory, in terms of overcoming the opposition and making the programs more accessible to young children," she said.

Mr. Krohne suggested the education community's persistence on the issue was one of the big reasons for the kindergarten bill's success this year. Another factor was that a vote against kindergarten was not a good idea in an election year. And perhaps just as important, the governor, who is not seeking re-election, refused to quit on the issue.

Elizabeth M. Twomey, the state commissioner of education, said testimony about the long-term educational and fiscal benefits of kindergarten "was convincing to a lot of people on the finance committee."

A state study of 3rd graders found that students who did not attend kindergarten had lower achievement levels. The report said that 10 percent fewer nonkindergarten children scored at the basic level or above on state language arts and math tests, compared with their peers who attended kindergarten. Other national studies have shown correlations between preschool and kindergarten attendance and higher high school graduation rates, better classroom behavior, and fewer placements in special-education classes.

In the end, lawmakers may have realized that even with the hefty price tag, their arguments against formal kindergarten were hard to justify.

"Mandates are simply not New Hampshire's way," Ms. Twomey said. "But the conviction has grown, given the data we all have about the efficacy of kindergarten, that this is as close to a mandate as they will come."

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