Governor Sununu’s budget draws praise, raises questions about the future of education

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First-term Governor Chris Sununu delivered his budget address last week, highlighting top issues like the opiod crisis and infrastructure needs. One topic that drew a lot of attention was his education priorities. These fell in three main categories: funding for full-day kindergarten, school building aid, and charter school funding. We’ll break it down and give the latest on what the state’s reaction has been. 

Full-day Kindergarten

Governor Sununu said he was “proud to be the first governor to deliver a real full day kindergarten program for communities across the state.” His budget provides $9 million per school year to fund full-day kindergarten programs. He says the funds will be targeted to the state’s neediest communities–taking into account towns’ property values, participation in the free and reduced lunch program (often used as a proxy measure for poverty levels), and the percentage of English Language Learners.

In Manchester, around 70% of students are either English Language Learners or qualify for free and reduced lunch. According to the Union Leader, the city could receive an additional $1.8 million in funding if the Governor’s budget is signed into law. That would free up a lot of money to help the city’s students, says Superintendent Bolgen Vargas:

“If we are able to reallocate that money, let’s say to efforts to getting reading to grade level or all the other challenges we are confronting, that will definitely help this district in a significant way,” said Vargas.

Nashua could see about $1.26 million in additional funding under the budget proposal. Superintendent Connie Brown has proposed extending all 12 elementary schools’s kindergarten programs. Right now, only 5 offer full-day kindergarten.

At the joint House and Senate Finance Committee meeting yesterday, where Governor Sununu answered questions about his proposed budget, he fielded questions about equity and how he can justify funding some towns and not others. He said he would have preferred to fully fund all programs, like what SB 155 proposes, but couldn’t:

“We tried to create a compromise,” he said. “We have fiscal constraints, but the towns and areas that can most benefit from a program like this are the ones on the lower income scale.”

“Let’s not let great be the enemy of the good,” Sununu told budget writers. “Let’s not do away a program because we can’t do it 100 percent maybe for every single town. A lot of towns that have the means already have programs implemented.”

State Board of Education member Bill Duncan, an outspoken advocate for education and supporter of fully funding kindergarten, agrees with Governor Sununu:

“I have always supported full adequacy funding for full-day kindergarten,” he said. “But when I saw this targeted proposal, I thought, ‘Reaching those families is the highest priority, and with limited money, it’s a great idea.’”

The proposal is expected to sail through the Senate, but could hit a snag in the House. Some state reps don’t think the state should fund kindergarten at all, according to the Union Leader:

“I think that is going to be a real stretch,” said House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson. “I think if you looked around the hall you probably didn’t see a lot of enthusiasm on the part of Republicans on that issue.”

Republicans traditionally are not in favor of state-supported kindergarten, preferring to leave it as a local option and local decision, Jasper said.

School Building Aid

Governor Sununu’s announcement that his budget plan included funds for school building aid earned enthusiastic applause. He didn’t provide an exact number, but said that projects that address safety issues like lead and asbestos would take priority, according to the Concord Monitor:

The governor hasn’t earmarked a specific dollar amount for school building aid – a program on hold for nearly a decade – but instead designated renovating schools with health and safety problems a high priority for the Infrastructure Revitalization Fund, which is fed from the state’s surplus funds. Right now, the fund has about $84 million in it, but that could change, and schools will compete with road and bridge projects for the money.

“The project and dollar amounts will be identified in consultation with the Legislature and based on available funds,” Sununu’s budget director, Charlie Arlinghaus, wrote in an email.

The backlog of proposed projects totals over $600 million with the almost 10-year moratorium on the school building aid program. House Finance Committee chairman Neal Kurk (R) isn’t optimistic about reinstating the building aid program, citing competing priorities. According to Seacoast Online, he said that Republicans don’t favor taking money away from other programs to fund school building aid:

“The House is very aware of the building aid moratorium and each session for the past two years we’ve looked to see if we could lift it,” Kurk said. “It’s really a question of balancing all of the needs of the state with the revenue that becomes available.”

Charter Schools

Both Governor Sununu and his pick for Education Commissioner, Frank Edelblut, are outspoken advocates of school choice and charters. In his budget address, he committed to stabilizing the charter school funding formula, which would provide an additional $15 million in aid:

“They are part of our public school system and drastically underfunded relative to traditional public schools,” he said. “We have to find a balance, but we can’t keep hamstringing those pathways that have been proven to be successful for our kids.”

Charter school enrollment and aid levels have been steadily increasing over the past several years according to the Department of Education website. Funding for charter schools increased about 22.5% to $13.6 million between 2014-2015 and 2015-2016, while enrollment increased about 21% in that same period.

Some praised the increase in charter school funding, but others are concerned that the money could siphon much needed dollars from traditional public schools. Senator Jeff Woodburn (D) told NH1 News that the approach is “the wrong direction” for New Hampshire and will be a “big sticking point.”

The Budget Process

The next step for the Governor’s budget is approval by the NH House. The budget–plus any revisions– goes to the Senate in early April, and the Senate votes on it in June. If the Senate makes any changes, the House and Senate have to meet in a Committee of Conference to iron out a final budget to present to the Governor. After the Governor signs it, the budget will go into effect on July 1.