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Saturday, November 3, 2012

PolitiFactNH: Dems’ attack on Lamontagne’s plans for kindergarten over the top

New Hampshire voters have almost made it to the Election Day finish line – signaling a final push for campaigns to flood mailboxes and front doors with mailers.

Among the shower of fliers, the New Hampshire Democratic Party recently labeled Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne as “radically backward” with an ad that features a photo of a frowning first-grader “already one year behind” his classmates because he didn’t go to kindergarten. ...

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New Hampshire voters have almost made it to the Election Day finish line – signaling a final push for campaigns to flood mailboxes and front doors with mailers.

Among the shower of fliers, the New Hampshire Democratic Party recently labeled Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne as “radically backward” with an ad that features a photo of a frowning first-grader “already one year behind” his classmates because he didn’t go to kindergarten.

“Ovide Lamontagne wants to eliminate kindergarten, which will leave our kids one year behind,” the mailer states, scrawled in crooked font that looks like a struggling elementary school student could have written it.

Democrats have used lines such as this throughout the campaign to attack Republicans who oppose state-mandated kindergarten.

The mailer also cites examples from debates and media coverage that show Lamontagne’s “radical agenda that will hurt our public schools.”

But since the flier clearly aims at Lamontagne’s views on kindergarten, we’ll stick to that.

New Hampshire Democrats backed up the flier by pointing to a debate between Lamontagne and Kevin Smith in August, prior to the Republican primary, to prove Lamontagne wants to “repeal the law ensuring all children can go to kindergarten.”

At the time, Lamontagne, who was chairman of the state’s Board of Education, said kindergarten shouldn’t be state-mandated.

“I’ve always been for local control,” Lamontagne said. “The decision about whether or not to have kindergarten is a decision for the communities and school districts of our state, it is not something that should be compelled, it’s really not something that should be compelled by the state. …

“If you turn over that decision to the state, what other decisions are you going to turn over to the state –
or worse, to the federal government?”

Collin Gately, press secretary for the state Democratic Party, provided us additional backup, including endorsements from The Telegraph and the Concord Monitor for Lamontagne’s opponent, Maggie Hassan, and a Telegraph story about a Lamontagne-Hassan debate at Rivier University, quoting Lamontagne: “I support public kindergarten, but those decisions should be made by parents and citizens at the local level, not mandated from Concord. Maggie thinks it should be mandated from Concord.”

Lamontagne spokesman Tom Cronin told PolitiFact New Hampshire that Lamontagne, a former schoolteacher, has “no intention of trying to overturn the kindergarten mandate.

“He opposed the original kindergarten mandate years ago because he believed it was the prerogative of local school districts to decided whether or not to offer and fund public kindergarten.”

If elected governor, Lamontagne could face whether to sign or veto a bill to repeal state-mandated kindergarten. During the 2011 session, Rep. Jonathan Maltz, R-Hudson, proposed H.B. 631 to repeal the state mandate requiring districts to provide kindergarten programs.

The bill specifically addressed repealing SB 530, which provides kindergarten construction grants for districts that don’t currently operate kindergarten programs, until every district in the state has a kindergarten program, said Stephanie Rose, an associate policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

But Maltz’s bill didn’t gain much traction from House Democrats or Republicans.

It’s worth noting that some New Hampshire legislators oppose the mandate so vehemently they tried to correlate higher crime rates with towns that offer kindergarten.

There’s still the question of whether repealing the state mandate would mean the elimination of kindergarten for New Hampshire families.

Not quite, history tells us.

For decades, New Hampshire was the only state that didn’t require schools to offer public kindergarten. Even so, 140 New Hampshire towns – more than 90 percent of New Hampshire districts – already offered free public kindergarten.

Nashua, the second-largest district in the state – and where the Democrats’ flier was mailed – was one of the communities to offer kindergarten without being required to.

“If the state were to repeal the kindergarten mandate, I can tell you we would not be looking to eliminate that grade level,” Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad said. “I think it’s well-recognized as an essential part of the public school system throughout the United States.”

About a dozen districts, representing about 1,500 children, didn’t offer public kindergarten until fall 2009, which is when the state officially required kindergarten to be part of an “adequate education.” Those children either went to private kindergarten, to out-of-district schools or stayed home. If the mandate were lifted, so could the number of public kindergarten programs in the state.

“I also think it would be fair to say, without the mandate, over time, you might find some communities dropping (kindergarten), as they’re pressed for costs that we’re all facing in these tough economic times,” Conrad added.

Our ruling

A dramatized New Hampshire Democratic Party flier tries to make Lamontagne out as a kindergarten abolisher.

Lamontagne acknowledges he opposed state-mandated public kindergarten – and still doesn’t agree with it. But he has no plans to repeal it, which is a far cry from eliminating an entire grade from public schools.

To say repealing the law would “eliminate kindergarten” and put a generation of New Hampshire students “one year behind” is over the top. But doing so would likely affect the families who can’t afford to send their children to private or out-of-district schools for kindergarten.

We rate the statement Mostly False.