The Hippo


May 28, 2020








The full-day kindergarten bill we ended up with

By Ryan Lessard

 After numerous versions of full-day kindergarten funding were proposed by lawmakers and the governor’s office, the final one signed by the governor was attached to the legalization of keno, with the hope that it will serve as the main source of funding for kindergarten. 

Keno is projected to generate between $8 million and $9 million. Keno is a video lottery game in which a player makes bets on a slip of up to 80 numbers. A screen at a casino or bar will display 20 randomly generated numbers every five minutes and the more numbers match what the player has on his or her slip, the higher the payout.
Democratic Sen. David Watters, the bill’s prime sponsor, said the keno proceeds would be directed to the Education Trust Fund. There will be no funding for full-day kindergarten the first year, but in the second year (fiscal year 2019) there would be a floor of $1,100 in per-pupil funding for all full-day kindergarten students.
“It also said that if keno produced more than the … $9 million a year, starting in two years, then that extra money can go toward the full funding,” Watters said.
With the $1,100 added to the $1,800 in existing funding for half-day kindergarten, districts with full-day kindergarten will receive $2,900 per pupil. Watters said that’s about 80 percent of full funding based on the adequacy formula used for other grades.
The compromise
Watters said the bill was a true bipartisan effort and credited his Republican partners, like Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley and Gov. Chris Sununu, for taking a leadership role in passing a full-day kindergarten bill through both chambers. 
But as with all true bipartisan bills, each party gains something and loses something.
For this bill, the issue of funding full-day kindergarten was largely uncontroversial. Though the effort has been historically championed by Democrats, Sununu made it a priority.
The larger divide on the issue was between the House and the Senate.
The Senate passed Watters’ original bill in late March with a large majority before being tabled in anticipation of the budget process.
“My bill passed 22 to 1 as a policy statement,” Watters said.
His original bill fully funded the program with $14.5 million in spending.
The House was less sanguine on the issue. An early House proposal for full-day kindergarten was retained in committee, suggesting the battle would likely be fought in that chamber. 
Another bill that passed the Senate would have targeted spending for full-day kindergarten to communities of most need using a formula that included statistics on free and reduced lunch programs, English as a second language and other indices, but Watters said that formula would create “winners and losers” with some communities getting negligible or no funding.
A full-day kindergarten measure spending $14 million passed the House in May, and there was a push to include it in the budget. But after the House Freedom Caucus, a minority conservative faction, joined Democrats in opposition to the House budget, leadership had to take a different approach.
“It became pretty clear that a budget including kindergarten could not pass,” Watters said.
The idea of incorporating keno was suggested by the House Finance Committee. It would serve as a funding mechanism, but it was also a way for the House to get something it has tried to get in recent years but has consistently failed to pass the Senate.
Watters said some believed keno was a poison pill, but he worked with negotiators in the committee of conference to make sure it passed.
“There was a problem with the keno so I talked with the Senate leadership and the governor’s office about saying that, ‘Look, if we did full funding in the second year, we could get the votes for keno,’” Watters said.
At first, that seemed to be a workable compromise.
“Despite the indications that this was acceptable to the parties, there was suddenly an objection from the House, that they would not support that,” Watters said.
So it was back to the drawing board. And what he came up with was the minimum of $1,100 in per-pupil funding starting in the second year, which was shy of full funding.
Looking forward
For Watters, that was still a major win, because even though keno is ostensibly how all of this is being paid for, that base level of funding is not contingent on keno’s making money.
“The bottom line for me is if a keno screen in the state never lights up, we still get $1,100 guaranteed per student,” Watters said. “I think it’s going to encourage more communities to adopt it, and I’m also going to continue to fight.”
Right now, about 73 percent of towns have full-day kindergarten. For those communities, Watters says, this bill is a tax relief. But for the rest, it’s a major incentive to start full-day programs of their own. 
The new law does not require towns to adopt full-day kindergarten, so it will be up to local communities to decide if they want it. 

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