While historically it’s been Democrats leading the charge to expand and fund kindergarten programs in the state, more Republicans are now backing the movement, including the governor himself.
Advocates say the shift can be partly explained by mounting research showing the benefits of full-day kindergarten, as well as significant support among voters and businesses.
A Republican alderman in Nashua is reportedly against a plan to expand full-day kindergarten to all the elementary schools there, and House lawmakers in a budget-writing subcommittee have voted to strip the governor’s kindergarten funds in a party-line vote. But, for the most part, advocates believe these are the exceptions to the rule. Support for full-day kindergarten is growing stronger, they say, and more Republicans are on board.
Democratic Sen. David Watters’ bill in the Senate that would fully fund full-day kindergarten was tabled, but that was after the full Senate, which has a Republican majority, passed the bill 22-1. There are four Republican co-sponsors on Watters’ bill, two senators and two House representatives.
Despite the recent vote in the House, Watters said the Senate showed clear support in more kindergarten funding, and the House usually crafts a more conservative budget. When it’s the Senate’s turn to take up the budget, they usually have more money to play with from more generous revenue estimates.
“I do have some optimism that we’re going to get there … in one form or another,” Watters said.
When Gov. Chris Sununu unveiled his budget proposal, it included a $9 million funding scheme for full-day kindergarten. That’s unusual for a Republican governor.
“I think it’s really significant. Gov. Sununu campaigned on this, as did his Democratic opponent, so I think that’s been an important shift,” Watters said.
Right now, about 70 percent of districts (about 80 percent of students) have adopted full-day kindergarten programs but the state only pays what the adequacy funding formula for a half-day program calls for.
Sununu’s plan wouldn’t cover the full cost of the more than 100 districts that are currently paying the difference on their own dime, but it’s designed to target communities with the greatest need based on economic indicators like community property wealth, free and reduced lunch program participation rates and percentage of English language learners.
Another bill in the Senate, sponsored by Watters, would fully fund the existing full-day communities to the tune of $14.5 million.
“So his covers about 75 percent of what mine does,” Watters said.
Watters said New Hampshire was the last state in the union to fund half-day kindergarten, which it did in the late 1990s.
“In New Hampshire, it was a long struggle to get half-day kindergarten,” Watters said.
In 2008, the state made it mandatory for each community to provide kindergarten. These new proposals would not make full-day kindergarten a requirement but would ensure some or all funding is available to the communities that choose to adopt it.
Watters said he’s observed the issue of full-day kindergarten funding become increasingly bipartisan in recent years.
“I think the consensus has been shifting toward the value of doing this regardless of party,” Watters said.
So, why the shift?
One reason could be the growing number of studies that have demonstrated a number of significant benefits of early childhood education in general and full-day kindergarten specifically. Watters said full-day kindergarten has been proven to have far-reaching effects that might improve not just the outcomes for individual children, but the local economy as a whole.
“You’re more likely to complete high school, you’re less likely to get pregnant, you’re more likely to go on to college,” Watters said of students who attend full-day kindergarten.
MaryLou Beaver with Every Child Matters said long-term data show increased reading and math skills among full-day kindergarten students that extend well into third grade.
There’s also a benefit for working parents, who won’t have to balance work and child care if their kids are in school for the whole day.
Lindsay Hanson at the Save the Children Action Network is pleased by Sununu’s proposal and calls it a “wonderful first step.”
She thinks Sununu’s support is a good sign that more Republicans are getting on board.
The most recent polling in the state, in fall of 2016, showed 70 percent of registered voters think full-day kindergarten should be a high budget priority, according to Hanson.
“As that’s been more of an issue locally, it’s been bubbling up to the state level more and more,” Hanson said.
Watters said more members of the business community have begun to express their support, though the Business and Industry Association is neutral on the issue.
Christine D’Allesandro, the state director of MomsRising, said her members overwhelmingly support full-day kindergarten funding.
“If there’s one point that comes across in this it’s that funding for full-day kindergarten is a bipartisan issue. The support that we have seen is broad, it’s on both sides of the aisle. If anything, it might have a slight generational difference,” D’Allesandro said.
Anecdotally, she’s seen more young people supporting it than older folks, though she admits her 6,000 members skew younger.
“And I think it’s not any accident that we have a younger governor who has got young children himself,” D’Allesandro said.
Still, she points to notable exceptions, such as Republican Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who supports full-day kindergarten funding. If Sununu’s plan passes, the city could stand to gain close to $2 million in additional funding, according to the Union Leader. But Watters said there are still too many unknowns when it comes to Sununu’s funding formula to arrive at an exact number.
And if the House committee vote is any indication, there is still a philosophical divide between the parties on this. Watters acknowledges this and says the Senate may have to persuade the House to get behind the effort.
Watters said more members of the business community have begun to express their support. While the Business and Industry Association is neutral on the issue, Watters said the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education supports full-day kindergarten, as do the leaders of Delta Dental, Hypertherm and Kocher & Company.