Governor, challengers discuss early childhood issues

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MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and two Democrats competing for the chance to unseat him contrasted their commitments to children and families on Monday at a forum hosted by a nonpartisan early childhood advisory council.

The three appeared Monday at a forum organized by Spark NH, with Sununu answering questions for the first half and Democrats Steve Marchand and Molly Kelly sharing the stage later.

The three largely agreed with the organization's goals, including the need for schools to adopt social and emotional learning programs and for the state to take on a greater role in ensuring quality child care for younger children. Some differences emerged in their approaches to funding full-day kindergarten, paid family medical leave and the state's child welfare system.

Until this year, the state paid school districts $1,800 per student for kindergarten enrollment, or half the $3,600 it provided for students in grades 1-12. Under the new system, districts are getting $1,100 per kindergarten student and more if keno revenue increases over time.

Funding will rise in later years depending on how much money is generated by the newly legalized keno lottery. Sununu called it a huge first step and said keno sales have "gone gangbusters."

"It's a K-12 system. I don't think different grades should have different rules when it comes to funding, so we'll keep fighting for it and we'll keep pushing and try to get there," he said.

Kelly, a former state senator from Harrisville, called keno a compromise but said she would repeal recently enacted business tax cuts to help pay for public education.

"If we can give tax breaks of over $100 million to 3 percent of the wealthiest corporations, we can fund education equally for all students across the state," she said.

Marchand, a former mayor of Portsmouth, called keno a lousy way to pay for education and said he'd go farther in having the state pay for pre-kindergarten, as well. Democrats, he said, have been too timid on that issue and others related to education.

"Right now, the definition of Democratic success is to defeat the voucherization of public education rather than say we're going to fund pre-K. The definition of success has been freezing what is already America's highest in-state tuition instead of saying we should have a debt-free plan," he said. "Getting kindergarten, but only if we do keno ... instead of saying this is a priority, and you have to fund it."

All three voiced support for paid family medical leave. Sununu said a recently failed bill wouldn't have been sustainable in a few years. Kelly spoke passionately about making sure a new bill would succeed if she's elected, describing how her son-in-law's ability to stay with her daughter helped her recover from a recent medical emergency.

"What if he couldn't be there because he was afraid he would lose his job?" she said. "If we can't find funding to boost that and get that going, who are we?"

Marchand said he's the only one with a specific plan to pay for a program, a payroll deduction that would amount to about $29 per year for someone at the median income point.

"A proposal without funding is called an idea," he said. "When you get specific as a candidate, you earn political capital so when you win you can spend that capital in office."

On child welfare, Sununu said, his administration has made great strides in addressing serious deficiencies at the Division of Children, Youth and Families, but Kelly said the efforts haven't gone far enough. She called for a system of care separate from the agency to focus on prevention and intervention measures that would help families avoid abuse and neglect.


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