Free kindergarten eludes the children of a N.H. town
By Travis Andersen
HUDSON, N.H. — Walk into a public school in Hudson, and you’ll see no kindergartners finger-painting, pushing around building blocks or practicing their ABCs.
This city of 25,000 is apparently the only place in the lower 48 states where public kindergarten isn’t a given, and school district officials are demanding more money from the state before offering it.
It’s believed to be the nation’s first lawsuit by a district seeking to block public kindergarten in its schools, and its critics say Hudson is denying the town’s children a foundation for success.
"It’s a well-established principle that kindergarten is an essential part of an adequate education," said state Rep. Emma Rous, chairwoman of the House Education Committee.
A 2007 state law requires free kindergarten statewide by this fall, and the nine other districts without it plan to begin programs soon. Hudson remains the sole holdout, with its school board voting Monday to affirm its opposition to starting kindergarten without more state money.
Townspeople will get a chance at a school district meeting in March to pull the plug on funding for the lawsuit and decide whether to pony up money for kindergarten this fall.
The New Hampshire Department of Education says more than 2,000 of the state’s 5-year-olds, 14 percent, lacked access to free kindergarten last year. New Hampshire appears to have more children in that category than any other state, said Mimi Howard, an early learning specialist at the Education Commission of the States, a policy nonprofit based in Denver.
The statistic hits close to home for Debra Newton, who has four children ages 16, 14, 11 and 9 in Hudson schools. She sent her oldest to a private kindergarten in 1998 but had to home-school her other children for financial reasons. Private kindergarten costs $4,000 to $8,000 a year per child in Hudson, according to David Alukonis, chairman of the school board.
Newton said that she used a nationally recognized curriculum at home, but that all three children still had trouble moving on to public school. One daughter had a learning disability that was diagnosed in the first grade.
It’s unclear whether the disability would have been identified in public kindergarten, Newton said, "but she would have been exposed to a lot more."
Newton’s other children struggled at the beginning of first grade and one needed extra reading help, she said. She has little sympathy for the school board’s position.
"I’ve read about the lawsuit, and I think it’s utterly ridiculous," Newton said.
Hudson officials believe otherwise, citing a 1984 amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution requiring the state to pay for any new programs it mandates.
The state is offering extra money to districts starting kindergarten programs, but not enough, according to the town’s lawsuit in Hillsborough County Superior Court.
The school board estimates that kindergarten would cost more than $1 million the first year in a school system with an operating budget of about $42 million this year. The state offers to pay at least three-quarters of building costs, which the board says would exceed $2 million over several years. The state is also offering $1,200 per pupil in annual aid, which would be $360,000 for the 300 children Alukonis said might attend.
Data collected on incoming first-graders in Hudson indicate that 92 percent to 95 percent attended private kindergarten, he said.
Hudson’s third-graders matched the state average for proficiency in math and beat the state average for reading proficiency in an achievement test this year. In higher grades, Hudson students met or exceeded state proficiency rates in nine categories out of 15.
Marc Egan, federal affairs director for the National School Boards Association, said the association’s legal office knew of no other district in the United States that has sued to block kindergarten, and several attorneys specializing in education law said the same.
Only Alaska and New Jersey acknowledge having districts that don’t provide kindergarten.
Beth Auerswald, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey schools, said her state’s lone holdout, the sparsely populated shore community of Avalon, has 77 pupils and sends kindergartners to an elementary school in a neighboring district.
Alaska also has only one district, Mount Edgecumbe High School, without public kindergarten, according to school department spokesman Eric Fry. The district is named after its only school.
Hudson resident Donna Ohanian, leader of the New Hampshire Public Kindergarten Coalition, is trying to change New Hampshire’s distinction. She encourages voters to endorse free kindergarten at the meeting in March.
"Any school board’s (top) goal should be what’s in the best interest of their children. All their children," Ohanian said. "They aren’t doing that."