One of Gov. Janet Napolitano’s greatest achievements is threatened as she prepares to leave office.
With the state facing a budget deficit in excess of $1 billion, some Republican lawmakers are taking aim at the voluntary full-day kindergarten program Napolitano fought so hard to expand.
High-ranking lawmakers, including incoming Senate President Bob Burns, R-Glendale, have already said that nearly everything will be on the chopping block when the Legislature meets again next month.
In recent years, many K-12 programs had been spared the legislative knife — in large part because of the governor’s protection. But with Napolitano on the way out and Republican Jan Brewer waiting to take over, those programs will be on their own.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said Friday he’s expecting to see across-the-board cuts as high as 15 percent to all programs not mandated — including full-day kindergarten.
“I think there are a lot of lawmakers that would view cutting full-day kindergarten as a final, going-away, Valentine’s Day present to the governor,” Horne said. “I think the governor leaving makes this program a lot more vulnerable.”
Horne, a former state lawmaker, said he’s a strong advocate of the kindergarten program but that his GOP colleagues want it gone. To justify his support, he cited numerous studies that show that children who attended full-day kindergarten perform better in school than those who didn’t. Still, he said that without Napolitano, it becomes open to attacks from tight-fisted conservatives only interested in the bottom line for the taxpayer.
Horne said he recently spoke with Brewer about potential cuts, but would not reveal any details of the discussions. Chuck Coughlin, a spokesman for Brewer, said she’s not ready to discuss specifics until she and members of her transition team have more time to study the state’s accounting books.
However, Brewer has earned a reputation as being very conservative when it comes to financial issues — both as a state lawmaker and as a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Former Mesa schoolteacher Faith Risolo, now a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, said that without the governor’s help, she and other supporters of the program will employ grass-roots political tactics. Risolo, the former president of the Mesa Education Association, said she and others will urge voters to contact their state lawmakers and tell them to keep their hands off full-day kindergarten programs.
“It’s a shame we always think we can balance the budget by cutting education,” she said. “That’s the last thing we want to touch.”
Since taking office in 2002, Napolitano has been a staunch ally of public schools. Over the years, she’s blocked the GOP-led Legislature from gutting key programs and found ways to provide more money for school construction.
But, by and large, expanding full-day kindergarten in 2006 to cover all children in the state is one of the high marks of her administration. She did so over the strong objection of a GOP-led Legislature.
Currently, the state is shelling out about $210 million to cover the costs of the program.
Next year, the state is expected to pay about $220 million, according to experts at the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
With such a large amount of money, many GOP lawmakers will look to chop the program as a quick way to help close the massive budget deficit the state now faces.
East Valley lawmaker Warde Nichols, R-Chandler, said spending state funds on the full-day kindergarten program is a waste of money, given the current economic environment.
“I would kill it altogether,” he said. “I would lead the charge.”
He says the program has actually hurt parents wanting to send their children to half-day programs. Parents in his district, he said, are complaining that some schools don’t offer half-day kindergarten and only provide full-day programs. Schools that do have half-day kindergarten, he said, don’t provide quality service.
Nichols and other Republicans also cite studies that show no significant advantages for children attending full-day kindergarten programs. However, many teachers see it differently.
Connie Hull, principal at Chandler’s Hancock Elementary School, said the school has had full-day kindergarten for two years and there is a clear benefit.
“It is just amazing for our kids,” Hull said. “Some kids can’t afford to go to preschool, so they come to you without any previous experience. This allows them to catch up and get a good foundation going into first grade.”
This year’s first-graders are the first who have all been exposed to full-day kindergarten, Hull said, adding that the teachers have been amazed at how ready the students were in July when classes began.
It’s unclear how effective supporters of full-day kindergarten will be at the Legislature without the governor at their side. Republican lawmakers have fought the expansion of the program, and with the GOP increasing its majority in last month’s elections, Democrats will have very little say as to what happens to full-day kindergarten — or any anything else, for that matter.
Democrats had hoped they would be in charge of the Legislature next year. However, they lost seats in both the House and Senate, reducing them to a nearly irrelevant role.
“We’re not going to be in as good a bargaining position as we have been,” said David Schapira, D-Tempe, referring to his party’s political power at the Legislature.