Gubernatorial Candidate Kelly Ayotte Talks Child Care, Education and Mental Health

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Former Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte spoke with Christy Gleason of Save the Children Action Network Monday at Saint Anselm College.


MANCHESTER – In the third installment of the Save the Children Action Network’s gubernatorial forums at Saint Anselm College Monday, former Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte spoke with Christy Gleason of Save the Children Action Network.

Ayotte answered questions about New Hampshire’s education, childcare system, and youth mental health crisis, all while giving a nod to Gov. Chris Sununu’s policies and prioritizing strong connections with businesses.

“The future prosperity of New Hampshire depends on our ability to steward the next generation of Granite Staters,” Gleason said to open the discussion. She prompted Ayotte about how she would prioritize New Hampshire’s children in her hypothetical budget as governor.

Ayotte was quick to say her work would build off Sununu’s achievements in that sector. Her goal, Ayotte said, would be to create a “fiscally responsible budget” while prioritizing children and teachers.

Namely, she stated her support for education freedom accounts, which has been a controversial program providing grants for parents to send their children to private schools of their choosing or homeschool them.

Ayotte underscored her answer with support for teachers, which she said she would make central to her education budget plan. She didn’t give explicit details about the financial plan, however.

 “Without good teachers, it doesn’t matter what the school infrastructure looks like,” Ayotte said. “The teachers are really the foundation for what makes a strong education.”

On May 9 and 10, the Save the Children Action Network hosted two other forums with candidates Chuck Morse and Cinde Warmington. On May 14, they will host the final forum with former Mayor of Manchester, Joyce Craig at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

Gleason transitioned the conversation into childcare, which has become an increasing issue in New Hampshire. She told Ayotte that the average New Hampshire family with two children under age five is spending $28,000 per year on childcare.

Ayotte directed the conversation towards the private sector, asserting that New Hampshire should create tax incentives for businesses to provide childcare. She also said that parents need to be provided better access to resources available to them to support childcare costs and access. A key issue in childcare, Ayotte said, was elevating the childcare workforce itself as well, “making it not a transitory work job, but a career path.”

A common solution Ayotte cited throughout the forum was “leveraging the community college and university system.” In the case of childcare workers, Ayotte was hoping this could provide greater incentives and longevity in the position as childcare workers are afforded more opportunities. Most notably, Ayotte aims to relieve debt for childcare providers and mental healthcare workers who commit to living and working in New Hampshire for five years.

Another important facet of New Hampshire’s childcare problem is burnout and staffing shortages among providers. Gleason pointed to the lack of wages and benefits that make it difficult for providers to remain in the job. She asked Ayotte how she would address the issue.

“Our childcare providers are underpaid,” Ayotte said. She again pointed to the state’s higher education systems for creating a better pathway within the system for workers, but didn’t go into too much detail about how to directly address the fiscal issue.

Gleason brought the “childcare desert” to Ayotte’s attention as well. According to Gleason, 46% of New Hampshire is in a “childcare desert,” in which the amount of children in need of early childhood education far exceeds the number of spots available.

Ayotte again brought business back into the conversation. She said, while prioritizing the safety of children, it would help the issue to expand opportunities for women-owned childcare businesses that are often run out of their own homes. In doing so, the state would have to reevaluate some of its regulatory practices, Ayotte said.

“We’re going to have to think outside of the box on this,” Ayotte said.

Ayotte acknowledged that she wasn’t the most informed on the topic, especially in a room full of people who work directly with children. She hoped to “tap into brainpower” of people at the forum and hear new ideas.

Gleason pivoted to discuss the youth mental health crisis, an issue that appears to be a priority for Ayotte. She hopes again to build off of Sununu’s work in bolstering mental healthcare, she said, as well as her work as a Senator in 2014, when she helped to introduce the Mental Health First Aid Act that created $20 million in grants for training first responders, teachers/school administrators, primary care professionals, students, and police officers in Mental Health First Aid.

Ayotte emphasized the need to expand mental healthcare systems in the state, specifically access to providers to address particular needs. She said it was crucial in community health centers to have someone available to speak to for young people struggling with their mental health and bed availability for young people in hospitals.

“If you’re having a mental health episode, you can’t wait thirty days to talk to someone,” Ayotte said. “You’re in an immediate need where you need to talk to someone. We have to expand mental health providers in this state.”

As with childcare, Ayotte said the state’s higher education system could be leveraged to provide debt relief for mental health providers who commit to remaining in the state for five years.

Ayotte took a sharp detour during their conversation about mental health, bringing up the potential legalization of marijuana.

“I’m not a supporter of legalizing marijuana,” Ayotte said. She claimed cannabis usage contributed to more frequent diagnoses of schizophrenia and increased anxiety, connecting it to young brains still developing before age 25.

Ayotte brought the discussion back to mental health, rounding it out by speaking about the need to reduce stigma around mental health to address the crisis.

“Mental illness is like I broke my leg,” Ayotte said. “If I broke my leg or my arm, you wouldn’t think anything of it. You wouldn’t think badly of me.”

As they continued the conversation, Gleason brought up the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) Program, which provides grocery-buying benefits to low-income families with school-aged children when schools are closed for the summer. Gleason said that while the federal program provides the funding, states have to administer it and cover the administrative costs—while some states have opted out of the program, Gleason said, New Hampshire will be participating.

Ayotte said she would like to see New Hampshire continue its participation, as well as local flexibility such that communities can decide what is best for their specific population. In particular, Ayotte said, food security is an issue in the North Country in towns like Berlin.

“We need to make sure that we allow the localities to have that flexibility, to make sure they can serve as many kids that have needs as possible,” Ayotte said.

Gleason said the Community Eligibility Program within the school year operates qualifying low-income communities with free school meals for all of the children within that community.

“In New Hampshire, there are 90 schools that would qualify for that program, but only two participate,” Gleason said. She prompted Ayotte for her perspective on the program and its potential expansion throughout the state.

“This is an example, though, where Washington doesn’t always think through everything,” Ayotte said. She indicated that school districts must provide free meals for children who could afford it, warranting an “income eligibility cap.” That way, she said, schools can use the money not allocated to families who can pay to cover their own debt.

“That’s what I’m hearing is a barrier to expansion in this program,” Ayotte said.

Gleason wanted to know how Ayotte would serve all of the communities throughout the state, especially the more rural and isolated areas in the North Country.

“We have to prioritize continuing to grow economic development and jobs in that area,” Ayotte said. Specifically, Ayotte spoke of the possibility of expanding energy development and small modular nuclear to support a manufacturing plant in a place like Berlin. She’s hoping to recruit businesses not just from Massachusetts, but also from Canada as well.

In expanding growth of the North Country, Ayotte touched upon healthcare and education in addition to the economy. She would aim to convene all of the hospitals in the area and create specificity of care. Ayotte hopes to see the expansion of trades and career technical education as well, encouraging high schoolers to explore those career paths in the process. Lastly, Ayotte addressed that childcare needs are “even bigger up there,” again bringing up her goal to incentivizing businesses to provide childcare.

To wrap up their conversation, Gleason asked Ayotte what she would say to parents as they think about how they will cast their vote for governor.

 “I as governor will work with anyone to make sure our state becomes even stronger,” Ayotte said. “I’m a listener, I’m going to be listening too.”

“I don’t have all the answers, I know there’s a lot of smart people in this room and I hope I have the opportunity to work with you,” Ayotte said to finish off the forum.

After the discussion, Gleason spoke to about what these discussions mean for children. She said it was an opportunity for parents and families to see where each candidate stands on issues that impact their children.

“The reason we’re doing these forums is because kids can’t vote,” Gleason said.

Gleason said a lot of issues on the ballot for parents have to do with their children, especially early childhood education.

“The child care issue is one that every parent struggles with,” Gleason said. “It’s got systemic impacts in a lot of different directions.”

On her campaign website, Ayotte describes herself as a “homegrown conservative.” A quote of hers is published proudly stating, “New Hampshire is one election away from turning into Massachusetts. We need a tough conservative Governor who will keep us safe, prosperous and free.”

Ani Freedman is a recent graduate from Columbia Journalism School with a passion for environmental, health, and accountability reporting. In her free time, she’s an avid runner and run coach. She can be reached at

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