NH legislators debate full-day kindergarten funding

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Since HB 155–the bill that funds full-day kindergarten–was introduced this session, legislators from both chambers have spoken out regarding full-day kindergarten programs. Senator David Watters (D-Dist. 4) recently told Seacoast Online that one of his biggest priorities in 2017 is to expand access to full-day kindergarten.  Senator Dan Feltes (D-Dist. 15), one of the bill’s sponsors, advocated for funding full-day programs on NHPR’s The Exchangesaying it was “only fair.” But others have concerns: Senator John Reagan (R-Dist. 17) thinks that even if the state funds kindergarten like it does other grades, it would still leave districts with a large bill to cover other costs.

Sixty percent of New Hampshire school districts offer full-time kindergarten programs. The state’s funding formula counts kindergarten students as half-time students, effectively funding only half-day programs. Districts that offer full-day programs have found other ways to pay for it, but Senator Watters wants to change that:

“For me, it’s a fairness issue,” said Watters. “It seems to be something that we ought to be offering it to all communities.”

Watters wants to pass a bill to release some of the Title 1 funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which helps fund schools in low-income towns in order to make up the gap between wealthier communities that spend some of their education budget for all-day kindergarten. He stated that there is enough funding in the state’s education budget to be able to provide some assistance to various towns.

Laura Knoy, host of The Exchange, had Senator Feltes and Senator Reagan, chair of the Senate Education Committee, on her show last week to explore both sides of the issue. She asked Senator Feltes why the state should provide full adequacy funding when over half of the districts already have the programs:

LK: Here’s a question for you, Senator Feltes. Your bill aims to give full state funding for full day kindergarten but 60% of districts are already doing it on their own. So if districts really want it, why don’t they just pay for it themselves?

DF: It’s just not fair to those districts and those local property tax payers to just provide half of the support. First, second, and third grade get full support, kindergarten should get full support. This is an issue about keeping and attracting young people and young working families in this state which is demographically and economically needed. You see families moving out of Concord and into Bow and Hopkinton based on the access to full-day kindergarten. If we want to be a state that attracts the younger workforce that we need to attract, we need to step up to the plate.

There’s no mandate that local school districts go to full day under this bill. If you choose to, it’s only fair that you get full support. In many ways, kindergarten is more important than other grades. There’s no mandate, its up to the local school districts. I agree with the incoming Governor [Chris Sununu]–its only fair.

Senator Reagan sees full-day kindergarten as a local control issue and says the evidence supporting full-day programs over half-day are “inconclusive”:

The benefits are still kind of [inconclusive]… there’s no decisive point where you say, “OK, lets back it up and put 3 year olds in school because the benefits are so great.” It was 2009 that we even asked–required–that there be some offering of kindergarten. Most of your adults today in New Hampshire didn’t have to go to kindergarten. So that’s the history of it, we’ve succeeded and our students have succeeded without kindergarten.

This is probably properly left locally, and its up to those folks locally. Its up to those folks in those communities to debate the issue. And that’s why we have town meetings and that’s why we have warrant articles.

In a study done by the University of Virginia, full-day kindergarten was shown to result in greater learning gains per dollar spent than other early childhood interventions, like reduced class size. Students in full-day programs show faster gains on literacy and language measures when compared to half-day kindergarten students, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. And, they have better retention and remediation rates in later grades.

Locally, some teachers think that full-day programs can help with child development:

“It’s hard because we have so much that we want to teach them, and two and a half hours doesn’t allow us to teach everything we want to teach them, be social and play,” Sarah Williams, kindergarten teacher at Mill Brook School, said.

For kids, she said, consistency gained through staying a whole day in a classroom can reduce stress and improve development.

Senator Dan Innis (R-Dist. 24) talked about focusing on growth in the NH business community, and said that strengthening our schools is an important step for a stronger economy:

Innis said in order to build a stronger economy in New Hampshire, a major step is to improve education from pre-kindergarten through the college level. He explained that while he “conceptually” likes the idea of all-day kindergarten, he has yet to develop a policy position with respect to implementing it.

There will be a hearing on HB 155 on Thursday, January 12 at 1:00 p.m. in LOB 207.

Read the full article here. Keep up with education legislation in the 2017 general session by following our Education Bill Tracker.