Kindergarten Bill Becomes Rare Instance of Bipartisanship in N.H. Legislature

Apr 18, 2017

Tuesday saw Gov. Chris Sununu’s maiden visit to testify before a legislative committee, on a bill to expand full-day kindergarten to more school districts. And from the start, Sununu made it clear he sees the policy as one that could define his time as governor.

“I am very proud to sit here and say that I am the first governor to put forth a viable full-day, real kindergarten for the communities across this state," Sununu told legislators. "I believe in it very passionately.”

And he’s not alone. Sununu’s proposal, which would target aid based on a community’s tax base, its number of low-income students and those who speak English as a second language, cleared the state Senate, 21-2. That vote came after Sununu’s plan was grafted on to a slightly different kindergarten bill sponsored by Democrats that would have sent out aid on a straight per-pupil basis. Dover Sen. David Watters wrote that bill, but he told the House that Sununu’s approach is fine by him.  

“I fully and strongly support the governor’s plan," Watters said. "It is a New Hampshire plan, it is a pragmatic approach, and the next step in a long journey since 1999 to provide kindergarten education for the children of New Hampshire.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley sat at Watters’ side during the committee hearing. If the bipartisan visual wasn’t enough, Bradley took pains to spell it out, urging the House to view this bill as a compromise.

“So, for both sides of the aisle, for those who would like to see us do more, and those that feel we shouldn’t be doing it at all, this is a reasonable way to proceed," Bradley said.

But divining what’s reasonable in the New Hampshire House, which couldn’t manage to pass a budget this session, isn’t easy right now.

As Rep. Victoria Sullivan put it: "The House is a little unpredictable these days; I don’t know if you know that."

Sullivan opposes the bill, which she said would erode parental control.  

“I know there is going to be at least, probably close to 100 Republicans who will vote against this, because we know the next step is full-day funded kindergarten, mandated, mandated means parents don’t have any choice," she said.

But even with that level of opposition within the GOP, this bill could pass.  The promise of more money for the 104 communities that now pay for full day kindergarten on their own is just part of it.  Backers are pitching the bill as being about more than education. For Sununu, the lack of universal full-day kindergarten is also a vulnerability as he tries to woo businesses to relocate here.

"Very directly I’ve heard it," Sununu said. "Time and time again, and without any exaggeration, I heard it when I spend time in Quebec. Families in Quebec are even talking about it."

Backers of the bill are also arguing it will help blunt the effects of a problem that’s already here and not going away anytime soon: the state’s opioid epidemic. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas noted that his city has seen hundreds of children born to addicted parents.

"And if we don’t have a place where they can get a full-rounded education for the opportunities that are before them, we are going to lose those kids to special needs, and those are going to cost us more dollars," Gatsas said.

 Whether these argument sway House members, including Speaker Shawn Jasper, who has insisted decisions about kindergarten and its funding should be made locally, remains to be seem. But there are signs House GOP leaders, who supported the removal of kindergarten money from the state budget, may stand down.

“We are waiting to see what comes out of the public hearing,” said House Majority Leader Dick Hinch.

So far it looks like something Governor Sununu has yet to enjoy with any regularity: bipartisan cooperation.