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Why the State House Debate Over Full-Day Kindergarten Doesn't Matter to Some Districts

Jason Moon for NHPR

New Hampshire has long lagged behind other states when it comes to the availability of full-day kindergarten. Legislators are likely to take up the issue this year, as they have in years past. But the ideas being debated in Concord this year likely won’t change the situation for school districts who can’t already afford to offer a full-day kindergarten program.

At the Moose Hill School in Londonderry, kindergartners are in the middle of something called ‘center time.’ Around the classroom are a handful of tables, or ‘centers,’ where groups of 4 or 5 learn skills like reading, handwriting, and basic math.

Circle time is just one part of a busy school day for these 5 and 6 year-olds. Moose Hill Kindergarten Coordinator Bonnie Breithaupt says that’s because they have a lot to learn – not just academics but things like basic social skills.

“I mean they need to know what it means to be a student," says Breithaupt, "but also what it means to be a friend, to share, to take turns. All of that.”

But at Moose Hill, all of that has to fit into a school day that’s just two-and-a-half hours. That’s because Londonderry is one of the roughly 40 percent of school districts in New Hampshire that offer a half-day , rather than full-day, kindergarten program.

As a state, New Hampshire has been slow to warm to the idea of kindergarten, despite research that suggests it can make a lasting positive impact on students’ success. Today, a smaller percentage of kids attend full-day kindergarten in New Hampshire than in almost any other state. Though, more and more districts have been adding full-day programs each year.

But those districts have moved to full-day programs without support from the state. The state currently funds kindergarten programs at half the rate as other grades, whether it’s half-day or full day. That’s something Democratic State Senator Dan Feltes is hoping to change this legislative session.

“Kindergarteners aren’t half as important as first grade, fifth grade, sixth grade," says Feltes, "so it’s unfair to local school districts to only provide half of the support for kindergarteners.”

Feltes sponsored a bill last year that would have increased state support for kindergarteners, but that bill failed on a vote that fell largely along party lines. Republicans argued that the cost, estimated at around 13 million dollars, was too expensive.

But Feltes seems optimistic that this year could be different -- even with Republicans in control of both legislative chambers and the governorship. That’s due in part to the fact that governor-elect Chris Sununu expressed support for fully funding kindergarten during a gubernatorial debate on NH1.

But even if there is support from the new governor, there is still likely to be opposition from Republican lawmakers like House Speaker Shawn Jasper who says the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“I think that to a large degree, kindergarten is the socialization of the students. I think we need to put more resources into the upper grades where real education takes place.”

However this debate over kindergarten plays out at the state level, back at Moose Hill School Londonderry Superintendent Nate Greenberg says there’s a more basic math problem here.

“Just having full adequacy funding wouldn’t come close to what the cost would be,” says Greenberg.

The money the state sends to school districts intended to ensure a so-called ‘adequate education’ starts at a base rate of 3,600 dollars a year per pupil – or half that for kindergarteners. Meanwhile, the average cost per student in New Hampshire is more than four times that amount. So even if the state funded kindergarten at the same level as other grades, districts with half-day programs would still face a steep cost to move to full-day.

“When the state says we’ll pay for kindergarten, what does ‘we’ll pay for’ mean?" asks Greenberg. "Does ‘we’ll pay for’ mean we’ll cover the cost of staff? Does ‘we’ll pay for’ mean we’ll cover the cost of construction? Will ‘we’ll pay for’ include furniture, technology, staffing – you know, what does it mean?”

For now, it means the real debate over full-day kindergarten in New Hampshire will continue to happen at the local level, district by district.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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