Budget showdown looms over full-day kindergarten funding

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Friday, March 31, 2017

School districts in Merrimack County stand to get thousands more dollars under Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s plan to begin funding full-day kindergarten. But the new spending faces resistance in the GOP-led House, setting the stage for a budget showdown over early education. 

Roughly 80 percent of towns and cities across New Hampshire already have some version of full-day kindergarten, though the state requires and only pays for a half day. 

While a dozen school districts, including Bow and Shaker Regional, expanded kindergarten last school year, others rejected full-day programs over cost and space constraints.

One of Sununu’s budget priorities is giving $9 million a year in grants to schools with expanded kindergarten. While Senate Republicans have given the plan initial approval, House budget writers pulled the kindergarten money out of their own spending plan, which comes up for a vote next week.

“The capacity of a six-year-old to be attentive in a classroom for a full day is pretty much non-existent,” House Speaker Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican, told the Monitor recently. “The state paying for (half-day kindergarten) is appropriate. Beyond that, I think that is a local decision.”

Proponents of full-day programs say they give children equal access to early education and minimize disruptions caused by shuffling kids from a half-day at school to daycare. Critics say seven-hour days are too long for young children.

Districts that expand kindergarten to a full day don’t get any extra money from the state under current law. While school districts receive $3,561 in state aid for each student in grades one through 12, they receive a half payment – $1,781 – for each kindergartner.

Sununu’s proposal wouldn’t remedy that, but instead allocate $9 million a year of targeted aid to districts with full-day programs.

Grants would depend on the number of English language learners and students on free or reduced lunch in a district. Every town and city, except Manchester, would get less money under Sununu’s formula than if the state paid full aid for each kindergartner. But school districts in the Concord-area with full-day programs would still see a funding bump, according to projections from the Department of Education based on this year’s figures.

Bow would stand to gain roughly $66,000 a year, while Hopkinton would see a $43,000 annual boost. Allenstown could get an additional $41,600 and Franklin is looking at a $147,700 increase. Pembroke is poised to get roughly $107,000 while Penacook could see an extra $104,000.

House Democrats plan to bring forward an amendment reintroducing full-day kindergarten funding into the state budget, though its chances of passage are unclear.

“We need full-day kindergarten to stay competitive,” said House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat. “Anything that moves us in that direction is positive. We would like to see more than what the governor proposed, but we would like to see something.”

Shifting to a full day can be taxing for school districts because the change often requires hiring extra staff or adding more classrooms. The Concord School Board recently rejected a plan to provide full-day kindergarten in the district over the high price tag.

Dunbarton decided to revert back to a half-day program this year over space constraints at the local elementary school.

Higher costs haven’t stopped all districts from moving forward with programs. Chichester will offer full-day kindergarten next year after voters agreed to spend an additional $48,000 to staff the program.

At the town’s school district meeting in early March, Chichester Central School principal Brian Beaverstock said expanding kindergarten is a no-brainer.

“A whole-day program is more than just twice the half-day program in my mind,” he said. “It’s really educating the entire, the whole child.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)