Full Funding of N.H. Kindergarten Sought

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New Hampshire lawmakers will be showered with Valentine's Day greetings this week from constituents who do their talking with crayons and construction paper.

Children from throughout the state have been making valentines for legislators, while their parents--members of the New Hampshire Public Kindergarten Coalition--are watching whether the lawmakers will support a new kindergarten funding bill.

The state does not require districts to offer kindergarten. While 103 of the state's 154 districts do provide it--using local money--many families are left paying for private kindergarten. And about 15 percent of 5-year-olds don't attend kindergarten at all.

"When we moved here, we didn't think to ask, 'Do you have kindergarten?'" said Paige Sutcliff of Hudson, N.H., a coalition members and an organizer of the Valentines for Kindergarten campaign. "It really would have affected whether we bought here."

1996 Law Inadequate?

A new law, passed last year, created a $500-per-child appropriation for districts that offer kindergarten, costing the state $5 million.

Rep. Donald B. White, a Republican from Hudson, has introduced a bill this year that would raise that figure to $2,000 per child, much closer to the actual price tag of a half-day program.

Because many districts don't have the classroom space to accommodate kindergarten students, $500 a child is more like a reward for those that already offer kindergarten, not a real incentive for districts to begin providing it, said Donna Ohanian, a coalition member.

Mr. White's bill would tack an extra 18 cents onto the price of each pack of cigarettes to provide $30 million in funding. Districts would also be able to use the money to provide property tax relief. New Hampshire does not collect a sales tax or income tax.

Mr. White's bill is likely to be just one of many kindergarten funding proposals to be introduced this session.

The new Democratic governor, Jeanne Shaheen, is also scheduled to present her budget this week, which is expected to include a plan for expanding kindergarten.

While Gov. Shaheen has indicated that she, too, might propose a cigarette-tax hike, the revenue would likely go into the general fund instead of being dedicated entirely to kindergarten, according to her spokesman, Todd Quinn.

The state is also carrying a budget deficit of some $45 million in its $1.6 billion budget. That shortfall will have to be addressed.

"There are a lot of ifs as to where we're actually going to be at the end of '97," Jeff Pattison, a state budget analyst, said.

Grassroots Effort

So far, Ms. Sutcliff and Ms. Ohanian have paid to print fliers and mail information about kindergarten funding.

They've appeared on radio stations and written letters to newspapers to generate support for their cause.

Their town of Hudson, in the southern part of the state, has 400 children who were eligible to attend kindergarten this year. But the Hudson-Litchfield school district is one of the districts that don't offer it.

Ms. Ohanian has paid for two children to attend kindergarten, while Ms. Sutcliff is now sending a son to a private school. Both women also have preschoolers who they hope will be able to attend public kindergarten.

"It's not that I mind paying for it. It's the fact that not all kids get to go," Ms. Ohanian said.

The parents complain that 1st grade teachers have a difficult time teaching classes in which some students have been to kindergarten and some haven't. Too much time, they say, is spent working with the children who didn't go to kindergarten.

While it's too early to tell which funding plan might get the most attention, Paul Krohne, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, is hopeful that spending for kindergarten will increase this year.

"We viewed the legislation that passed last year as a positive first step. But I feel very comfortable saying that something will pass that will be an improvement over what we have now," he said. "We have raised the importance of kindergarten to the point where it is nearly politically impossible to vote against it."

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