The conversation around early childhood education in New Hampshire today is often focused on the availability of half-day versus full-day kindergarten programs.
Governor Maggie Hassan weighed in when she spoke to NHPR in May:
"Full-day kindergarten would be a very important next step in making sure our young people have the kind of education that really prepares them for the 21st century global economy."
However, kindergarten here was not guaranteed until a 2007 law mandating public programs state-wide – making New Hampshire the last state in the nation to fully adopt public kindergarten.
"The literacy demands, the educational demands of our society keep going up and up and up," said Dr. Helen Schotanus – speaking to NHPR in 1990 when she was New Hampshire’s early education curriculum supervisor. "We need to be better-educated than we ever were before. And when you find something that shows a long-term, positive effect on quality of education, I think it makes good sense to go with it."
Back then, only 54 percent of school districts offered kindergarten, and while many families could afford private programs, nearly a third of the state’s children attended no kindergarten at all. For many, especially New Hampshire’s low-income families, the educational opportunity gap has existed for decades.
From the archives this week, we take a look at the state of kindergarten in New Hampshire in 1990. NHPR’s Kathy McLaughlan reports.
Fourteen five-year-olds were busy at play in a kindergarten class at the Harrisville Center School. It’s the kind of play, educational experts would say, that builds the social and developmental skills needed to prepare the children for the following year, when they enter the first grade.
But quite often, five-year-olds in New Hampshire go without kindergarten. As of April 1990, New Hampshire was the only state in the country that did not mandate public kindergarten. Just 83 of the 154 school districts in the state offered it that year. Local school officials said it’s not that they didn’t want public kindergarten – it’s just that they couldn’t afford it.
Take the ConVal school district in the Monadnock region. It had considered a public kindergarten proposal four times in the past and, at the time this story originally aired, had recently rejected it a fifth time. Instead of spending $300,000 to add kindergarten, the district was facing a budget crunch and had to cut more than $600,000.
Peterborough Selectman Charles Leedham said taxpayers in his area were strapped.
“Kindergarten would only cost approximately $40 per year per average household,” he said. “OK. But to slightly change a fairly famous quote, ‘Forty dollars here and forty dollars there and pretty soon it adds up to real money.’”
But supporters of kindergarten, like ConVal school board member Mary Clark of Duncan, said money was not the only reason many school districts, including ConVal, have not approved public kindergarten.
“I think the other factor is a sort of a very New Hampshire kind of an attitude,” she said. “We live in New Hampshire for a reason – live free or die. ‘We’ll do what we want. Everybody else may have kindergarten, well by god we’re not gonna.’ And I think that attitude is really here. ‘We didn’t have it, why should our kids have it? We don’t need this. Everybody else does, but they’re all just complicating their lives.’”
Rising Educational Needs
Kindergarten was not a new education concept in 1990. It originated in Germany in the 1840s and was soon afterward brought to the United States. The first public kindergarten was established in St. Louis, Mo. in the late 1800s, and by the 1950s and 1960s, most states had mandated public kindergarten.
Studies on both low-income and high-income families had showed that those who attended kindergarten were more likely to complete high school, scored higher on standardized tests, placed a higher value on learning, and placed a higher value on occupational success.
“The literacy demands, the educational demands of our society keep going up and up and up,” said Dr. Helen Schotanus, the early education curriculum supervisor for the state of New Hampshire. “In the last century, a person was considered literate if they could write their name. And a person being able to write their name is certainly not functional literacy for today’s world. We need to be better-educated than we ever were before, each and every one of us and as a whole. And when you find something that shows a long-term, positive effect on quality of education, I think it makes good sense to go with it.”
In 1990, roughly one-third of New Hampshire’s youngsters attended public kindergarten. Roughly one-third went to private kindergarten, at a cost of up to $3,000 per year, and a little less than a third attended no kindergarten at all.
“Children from middle-class families, who have the opportunity to buy kindergarten, enter first grade in good shape,” said Prof. Bruce Mallory, chairman of the University of New Hampshire’s Education Department. “And they carry that experience with them through their educational career, and they don’t drop out from high school, and they go on to higher education and so on. What about the twenty percent? Do we as a state – not just as individual communities – but do we as a state have an obligation to the 20 percent or ten percent or even two percent of families that can’t afford kindergarten, and therefore are disenfranchised by this market-based kindergarten system that we have in New Hampshire right now?”
‘B’ Is For Budget
Some districts offered what were commonly referred to as readiness or transition programs. Six-year-olds were tested prior to entering first grade, and if they were deemed unfit developmentally, they spent a year in readiness. These children, therefore, were older than their peers when they finally entered first grade, and experts said they were often stigmatized as being slower intellectually than their classmates.
Dr. Schotanus and others argued that readiness was too-often substituted in school districts for kindergarten.
“I think the evidence is real clear that when we have limited resources, and of course all school districts have limited resources, that it makes sense to be providing a kindergarten program, rather than a readiness program,” she said. “And if a district has 40 percent, 50 percent of their youngsters going into a readiness program, it would be possible to provide quality public kindergarten without any additional classrooms or any additional teachers – which means without any additional cost to the district.”
In a round of school district meetings prior to the airing of this story, the towns of Harrisville, Barnstead, Pittsfield and Marlborough voted in kindergarten. But in other districts that faced budget cuts, like Franklin, Claremont, Laconia and Thornton, kindergarten was eliminated. Kindergarten supporters said it was not very likely that the state would mandate public kindergarten in the near future because of its political system.
Under state law, the legislature could not mandate programs at the local level without providing the necessary funding. A state-wide kindergarten program in 1990 would have cost more than $23 million, according to estimates at that time. Supporters said without some sort of radical change in the state’s tax structure, coming up with those dollars would have been next to impossible.
Believe it or not, the debate around public kindergarten continued for another 17 years after Kathy’s story. A 2007 law required towns to begin offering public kindergarten by 2009, and since then, full-day kindergarten has been slowly spreading around the state.
For more about early childhood education in New Hampshire, check out the NHPR news series The First Decade.
And for more captivating stories from New Hampshire’s past, be sure to visit our blog as well.