When it comes to public education, Gov. Chris Sununu and his Democratic challenger Molly Kelly offer very different curriculums.
Most glaring is the first-term Republican governor’s push to allow some parents to send their children to private or religious schools, or home schooling, with state-taxpayer funded scholarships.
The governor, a strong supporter of the so-called school choice movement, pushed hard for Senate Bill 193, which would set up a voucher-like system for families who remove their kids from public schools to be able to take $3,500 of the state funds spent on their child and put it in an education savings account to spend on the alternative form of schooling they choose for their children.
Kelly, a former state senator who served 10 years in the chamber, gives the proposal a failing grade.
“The voucher program will weaken public education, taking money from public education to private and religious schools and it will raise our property taxes. It is wrong for New Hampshire,” Kelly told the Monitor on Friday.
The Democratic gubernatorial nominee was interviewed after greeting and speaking with teachers at the NEA (National Education Association) New Hampshire fall instructional gathering, the largest annual meeting for the state’s biggest union. The event, held this year at Bow’s high school, drew some 550 educators from across New Hampshire. NEA-NH has endorsed Kelly’s campaign for governor.
The legislation, known as a “school choice” measure by supporters and a “voucher” bill by opponents, passed along party lines in the GOP controlled state Senate last year. But it was defeated in May in the Republican dominated state House of Representatives.
Supporters of the measure argue it puts the power of the purse back in the hands of the parents, who should be the ones to decide which schools are the best fit for their kids. School choice advocates also claim the bill would have a limited fiscal impact on public schools.
Touting the proposed program earlier this year, Sununu said the “opportunity it can provide for those individuals is absolutely life changing.”
He highlighted recently that the measure would “have established education savings accounts that would have allowed parents or guardians of low-income students who currently attend a public school to apply for funds to purchase alternative education options that would best serve the individual student.”
“I continue to support this concept,” he added, indicating that if re-elected he’ll work again with lawmakers next year to try and pass the program. “When it comes to education, giving students and parents more choices expands opportunity for all.”
Opponents, including Kelly, counter that the measure would divert much-needed funding from public schools.
“What I want to do is strengthen public education,” Kelly explained as she emphasized that “public education is one of the biggest reasons why I ran for the Senate and it will be my priority as well as governor.”
As he runs for re-election to a second two-year term, New Hampshire’s first Republican governor in a dozen years often spotlights his most bipartisan crowning achievement: full day kindergarten.
The measure, signed into law last year by Sununu, increased from $1,800 to $2,900 the amount the state pays per kindergarten pupil per year. The increased funding is generated by revenue from the legalization last year of the Keno lottery game in the state.
In the year since the bill – a top priority for Sununu – became law, the percentage of New Hampshire communities offering full-day kindergarten rose from 75 percent to 90 percent. Concord implemented full-day kindergarten at the start of the current school year.
In a recent speech, Sununu spotlighted his fight for full-day kindergarten, saying “we put our political capital behind it. We worked with both sides. We worked with the legislation and we got it done. Did it get done exactly as I wanted. No, not exactly. But we got it done.”
And his re-election campaign is spotlighting the issue in a digital ad, with the narrator of the commercial saying, “Gov. Chris Sununu is building a 21st Century education system. He delivered full-day kindergarten.”
Kelly said funding full-day kindergarten for “every student is a priority of mine.”
But she told the Monitor that paying for the program with funding from Keno was the wrong way to go.
“I think putting it on Keno is not accurate in saying that we as a state are funding full-day kindergarten,” she said.
And Kelly vowed if elected to “work with the Legislature to look at how we can make full-day kindergarten sustainable over time. I’m not convinced that we can do that through Keno.”
When it comes to higher education, New Hampshire’s tuition at public four-year institutions remains the most expensive in the nation.
Both Sununu and Kelly vow to cut the cost.
Speaking Thursday to a group of business leaders, Sununu highlighted the nearly $5 million Governor’s Scholarship Program, a fund to help up to 1,000 students pay for higher education at Granite State schools. The governor touted the flexibility of the program, saying “students can pretty much use it anyway they want. They can go to UNH, they can go to Rivier (University), public or private or community college.”
When it comes to the high costs of attending the state’s colleges and universities, Kelly said she would “freeze tuition and lower it as well.”
And she’s proposed increasing the state loan repayment program to give students more flexibility in paying their bills.
While it doesn’t always dominate the headlines, the issue of education remains very important to Granite States. A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll conducted in August indicated the issue ranked as the third most important to Granite States, behind the drug crisis and the economy.