Republican Gov. Chris Sununu took his pitch for full-day kindergarten directly to House lawmakers Tuesday, arguing that expanding it would attract more jobs and workers to New Hampshire and offer the state’s children a better future.
“We have to throw the politics aside,” Sununu told the House Education Committee. “We have to really focus on what fundamental foundation we are going to lay for five, ten and twenty years down the road. Now is the time, I believe, to go to our communities to say, ‘We listened.’ ”
The first-term governor’s testimony marked a rare appearance by a chief executive in a legislative committee. Sununu has faced a skeptical audience in the House, where members of his own party rejected the kindergarten plan in the budget and House Speaker Shawn Jasper publicly questioned its benefits.
“I think that we’re pushing these kids too far too soon and the overall intent is going to be to have full-day mandated kindergarten statewide. And some kids aren’t ready for that,” state Rep. Victoria Sullivan, a Manchester Republican who sits on the education committee, told reporters Tuesday.
But Sununu’s full-throated support for kindergarten is giving him an opportunity to work with Democrats in search of a bipartisan achievement.
“It is a New Hampshire plan, it is a pragmatic approach,” said Democratic Sen. David Watters, the bill’s prime sponsor.
The plan won’t require districts to adopt full-day kindergarten, but it does provide more money to those that do – 104 communities right now. It spends $18 million over two years, giving targeted grants to districts based on overall property wealth, the number of students getting free and reduced-cost lunch and the number of students learning English.
Manchester would take in the most money by far, at more than $2 million. Elsewhere, towns such as Berlin and Claremont would rake in more than $200,000, while most communities will see less than $100,000, based on calculations by the education department.
School districts now get the same amount of money per kindergarten student regardless of whether they offer full- or half-day programs. Local property tax payers make up the difference, which makes it harder for some property-poor towns to expand.
The Concord school board voted this year not to expand to full-day programming next year, and board member Pam Wicks told lawmakers that while community members strongly supported full-day kindergarten, the decision came down to money.
“We heard from a large majority of people at our public hearings that they want this, it’s important to them – but at the price tag, with all these other costs downshifting to us, we could only ask our taxpayers so much,” she said.
Expanding full-day kindergarten in needy districts will help close the opportunity gap, Sununu said, citing research that shows full-day programs can lead to future academic gains.
Perhaps sensing lawmakers’ skepticism about the costs, Sununu argued paying for full-day kindergarten programs now will produce long-term gains. When Sununu speaks with out-of-state businesses about moving to New Hampshire, many executives and workers ask about whether the state offers full-day kindergarten, the governor said. New Hampshire is far below the national average in the number of students attending full-day kindergarten programs, according to a 2015 report from Education Week.
“They talk about this issue very specifically: ‘We hear you have communities that don’t offer full-day kindergarten for our kids,’ ” Sununu said. “Very directly I’ve heard it time and time again.”
The House Education Committee will make a recommendation on the bill before sending it to the full House for a vote. The Senate has already passed it.
(Monitor reporter Lola Duffort contributed to this report.)