Kindergarten is in state’s economic interests

The quality of New Hampshire’s public schools should be of critical interest to the business community. How well these schools prepare tomorrow’s workforce and leaders will affect not only the availability and productivity of our workforce, but also the economic well-being of our state.

Much has been written and said about New Hampshire’s need to grow its own workforce. According to Professor Ross Gittell of the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore School of Business, our high concentration of technology jobs means that more than two-thirds of jobs created here in the future will require some college education. Yet the reality is that not even one county in our state sends two-thirds of its high school graduates on to college.

If we are serious about growing our own workforce, we had better increase high school graduation rates and enrollment in higher education. Luckily, we already know how.

Decades of research have established that quality learning experiences — in the preschool years through the early elementary grades — are critically important in creating a foundation for a child’s success in school. Kindergarten and small class sizes are two major blocks in that foundation, especially for children who don’t have the advantages of educated parents and homes filled with books.

Yet when the state Board of Education cast its final vote recently on its proposed minimum standards for public schools, it left those two building blocks out. Board members understood the importance of early education well enough; it was political courage they lacked. If the board had voted to require kindergarten and smaller class sizes, the Legislature would have had to address whether and how to fund those requirements. Unwilling to put the legislature on the hot seat, the board simply backed down.

Quite simply, the 5-1 board vote made the statements that politics are more important than kids, and that the political comfort of a few powerful legislators is more important than educating the next generation of workers.

The Board of Education’s vote is an embarrassment. While the rest of the country has moved forward with investments in quality preschool for their youngest children, New Hampshire will remain the only state that doesn’t require that kindergarten be provided in every school district. One in five 5-year-olds here doesn’t have access to public kindergarten. And in general, the children whose families can’t afford private kindergarten are the children who need those learning opportunities the most.

You might ask: “Why should we care? Kids have 12 years in school to make up any lost ground.”

The answer is that many children never catch up with their peers. New Hampshire Department of Education data shows that the highest achieving students are those who have attended public kindergarten; the lowest achievers are those who were unable to attend kindergarten, public or private. Children who develop a love of learning at age 5 are more likely to stay in school, graduate from high school and succeed as learners for the rest of their lives.

So what to do now? The education rules must be approved by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR), which can oppose rules it deems contrary to public interest. Given the link between children’s educational foundation and the strength of our future economy, we hope the business community will persuade JLCAR’s members to reject public school requirements that don’t include kindergarten and smaller class sizes in the early grades.

As William Boc, the sole member of the Board of Education to vote against the standards, asked the board, “If no one on the Board of Education speaks for children, then who will?”

We at the Children’s Alliance now ask: “If no one in the business community speaks for workforce preparation and the future economic health of the state, who will?”

Ellen J. Shemitz is president of the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire, a Concord-based independent, non-partisan organization that advocates for the best interests of children.

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