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For Sununu, Full-Day Kindergarten Has Become A Cause Worth Working For

Allegra Boverman for NHPR
Governor Sununu delivered his inaugural address in January. Sitting behind him are N.H. House Speaker Shawn Jasper, and N.H. Senate President Chuck Morse

Rare is the New Hampshire governor who will admit feeling ashamed of the state. But Chris Sununu’s been doing just that lately, over New Hampshire’s lack of state-supported full-day kindergarten.

“It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing. This is the 21st century; this is New Hampshire.”

That was Sununu on Friday, pitching kindergarten at a meeting of the Derry/Londonderry Chamber of commerce. The Governor urged the group, which backs full-day kindergarten to take action.

“Get on the phone, pick up the phone. Call your legislators, particularly the folks on the House side. This isn’t a priority for all of them.”

That’s for sure. It was house Republicans who stripped the money Sununu proposed spending on kindergarten – $9 million a year – from its version of the budget. This was a move Speaker Shawn Jasper says is in keeping with core GOP values.

“It’s no surprise that Republicans have not been in favor of state supported kindergarten. We believe it is a local option.”

But as the Governor is putting public pressure the House, he’s also working the state Senate -- and finding allies.

"This floor amendment is the governor’s proposal on kindergarten."

That was Jeb Bradley, the Senate majority leader Thursday night, introducing the Governor’s kindergarten plan as a standalone bill. Within minutes, Sununu’s proposal cleared the senate 21-2. Before that vote, Bradley told colleagues that backing Sununu’s vision of targeted kindergarten aid is the best way to give the issue a full airing.

“It is a reasonable compromise, one that really jump-starts the debate about kindergarten and hopefully before we leave here in June, Senate bill 191 will become law.”

So Sununu is using his bully pulpit, and he’s consolidating support in the Senate. He’s also collaborating with non-partisan allies to work lawmakers. Last week, the governor met with a small group of House members, Republicans who might be persuaded to support full-day kindergarten. The get-together was convened with the help of New Futures, a lobbying group that mostly focuses on issues relating to substances abuse.

In that meeting, Sununu slid easily into terminology used by advocates as he pitched the benefits of full-day kindergarten

“It’s that opportunity gap, right, a lot of kids have opportunities that other kids simply don’t, simply because of where they live and their economic status," Sununu said. "That is what we are trying to close here.”

For Sununu, the fight over kindergarten may be a chance for him to close a political gap – between his political potential and reality. After three months in office, a knock on Sununu from both allies and critics is that the governor can be lazy. Regardless of the outcome on kindergarten, Sununu is showing he’s willing to work on things he cares about.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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