N.H. Town Fights Free Kindergarten Citizens of Hudson, N.H., are backing their school board's decision to reject an unfunded state mandate to provide free kindergarten. The case gets a hearing Wednesday.

N.H. Town Fights Free Kindergarten

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102050686/102050669" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, how to end it once and for all - a TV series, that is.

COHEN: First, though, we go to the town of Hudson, New Hampshire. State law there requires kids to go to kindergarten, but Hudson doesn't offer public education at that level. Now, the town is taking the state to court, saying it should pay for kindergarten. Preliminary arguments get under way today. New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports.

DAN GORENSTEIN: Most town officials in Hudson like to see themselves as fiscally conservative, limited-government, libertarian types. School superintendent Randy Bell has worked in Hudson for 10 years.

Mr. RANDY BELL (School Superintendent, Hudson): If a libertarian is defined as someone who doesn't like government telling them what to do, I would say, sure, there's a strong streak of that in this community.

GORENSTEIN: Now the town of Hudson is getting national media attention for its fight with the state over whether it should be required to provide public kindergarten. It goes back to a 2007 state law intended to put New Hampshire schools in the national mainstream by requiring public kindergarten paid with local tax dollars. But immediate past school board chair Dave Alukonis says the town sees it as just another unfunded mandate coming out of the statehouse in Concord.

Mr. DAVE ALUKONIS (Former School Board Chairman, Hudson): There's a constitutional requirement that the state cannot mandate a program unless the state pays for it. And in fact, when that amendment was adopted, kindergarten was held out as an example of an unfunded program that the state would have to fund.

GORENSTEIN: Now, the Hudson School Board is taking the state to court, and the board seems to have a majority of the town on its side. Last week, voters by a two-to-one margin shot down a proposal to add kindergarten. Given Hudson's tax rate, residents would have seen a 1.3 percent increase to their property taxes, about 20 cents per $1,000 of property value.

Ms. MARY ANNE POLLACK(ph) (Resident, Hudson): It all comes down to money, but you know what? Just deal with it. Don't deny the children, they're our future.

GORENSTEIN: Hudson resident Mary Anne Pollack is a branch supervisor at a bank. Her husband works for a cable company. They have five kids, including 20-month-old twins, Jackson and Grayson. The Pollacks moved to Hudson because there, they could afford a roomy house with a three-car garage at the end of a cul-de-sac.

Ms. POLLACK: To be honest, when I first moved here I was complete shocked that I had to tack on one more bill. You know, it was a huge reality slap for me. So, I mean, I thought it was barbaric. I didn't know.

GORENSTEIN: School Superintendent Randy Bell, though an outspoken public kindergarten supporter, says he's tired of people painting his town as somehow out of step with the times.

Mr. BELL: I don't think anybody could call this community backward - stubborn about kindergarten, perhaps, but to label the entire community, the school system as backwards, is a real disservice to the community. Our dropout rate is at or below the state level. Our attendance - college acceptance rates are above the state level. Our test scores run in the middle of the range.

GORENSTEIN: Bell says about 30 of the 300 students who enter first grade every year have not attended kindergarten. Some of those first graders adjust seamlessly, but newly elected school board member Laura Bisan(ph), another public kindergarten proponent, says this year, she worked with one little boy who was having real trouble.

Ms. LAURA BISAN (School Board Member, Hudson):You know, I went to sit down with him and go through recognizing letters. And I realized, through just talking to him, that he didn't even know how to sing the ABCs. And yes, that's something that starts even before kindergarten, but the reality was this family could not afford kindergarten, could not afford preschool and he didn't even know his numbers. So, now anything that happens in the classroom is beyond him, you know. Every single thing - as simple as, turn to page three.

GORENSTEIN: Bisan worries the lousy economy will make it that much harder for parents to send their children to private kindergarten. Town selectman Shawn Jasper(ph) opposes the kindergarten requirement, but he agrees there ought to be a way for families who want it to afford it. He suggests the community look at creating some sort of fund for parents in need. But Jasper doesn't buy the idea that kindergarten is crucial for later success.

Mr. SHAWN JASPER (Town Selectman, Hudson): There are also studies out there that a lot of people will look at that, yes, kindergarten is helpful in the first three years but by, I think it's something like the fourth grade, you can no longer tell the difference between a student who's gone to kindergarten and one who hasn't. So, you've got to look, what's the real value that we're adding here?

GORENSTEIN: Superintendent Bell says the studies he seen and believes in say if a student isn't caught up by third grade, she won't catch up. But 67-year-old Bell is optimistic he'll see kindergarten before he retires. If Hudson wins its court case, the state pays for kindergarten. If Hudson loses, the town pays. Either way, Bell says, public kindergarten is coming to New Hampshire's last holdout. It's not a question of if, but when. For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.

COHEN: More coming up on Day to Day on NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.