Standing outside the elementary school he attended as a boy, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Marchand on Wednesday unveiled his education plan for New Hampshire.
The former Portsmouth mayor missed no opportunity to criticize Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
“Chris Sununu tries to pretend he’s like (Massachusetts Gov.) Charlie Baker when he’s a whole lot more like Donald Trump ideologically,” Marchand said outside Gossler Elementary School on Manchester’s west side. “There may be no issue where he has been more ideological than education.”
As Sununu runs this year for a second two-year term in the corner office, his record on education will be a cornerstone of his re-election campaign.
“I’m very proud that this administration has made bigger investments and provided more opportunities in early childhood education and early childhood development than ever before,” Sununu said as he spoke with reporters on Wednesday.
“The fact that we got full-day kindergarten, not just proposed. No Democratic governor even proposed that. We proposed it and we got it done. And we got it done for the cities and towns of the state of New Hampshire,” he said. “We’ve been incredibly successful already, and we’re going to continue with that success as we go down the road.”
But the jury’s still out on funding for full-day kindergarten, which so far is considered a signature achievement for the governor. The program relies on revenues from cities and towns that allow keno gambling.
Marchand argued that Sununu didn’t really achieve funding for full-day kindergarten, characterizing the governor’s efforts as “half-hearted.”
“He said it was one of this top two priorities, and he could not find the money in an almost $6 billion budget. He had to do keno because he didn’t have the courage or the aptitude to be able find the money within a $6 billion budget. So we don’t have full-day kindergarten in the way that most people would mean it,” Marchand said.
Sununu also highlights the governor’s scholarship program, a fund to help up to 1,000 students pay for higher education at Granite State schools.
But while some of Sununu’s policies have benefited public schools, he has also been a strong supporter of the school choice movement. One of his first major moves after taking over as governor early last year was to name former state representative and gubernatorial primary rival Frank Edelblut as commissioner of the Department of Education. Edelblut is a major proponent of school choice.
The governor is also a major backer of a bill (Senate Bill 193) which sets up a voucher-like system – allowing families who remove their kids from public schools to be able to put state money into an education savings account to spend on alternative schooling such as private, parochial or home schooling.
Supporters argue the bill would give parents more of a say in their children’s education. But opponents say it would take money from public schools and sends it to private schools that could discriminate against children with disabilities.
The governor’s nomination of Edelblut and his support of the school choice bill have served as lighting rods, enraging Granite State Democrats. Both Marchand and the other Democrat running for governor – former state senator Molly Kelly of Harrisville – oppose the school choice bill.
“SB 193 has the effect of turning thousands of dollars per student into a voucher, usable for private and parochial schools, and home schooling,” Marchand claimed.
And Kelly – in launching her campaign earlier this week – also took a shot at the bill.
“As governor, I’ll veto any plan that takes money from public schools to pay for vouchers for private schools,” she said.
A top New Hampshire-based political scientist predicted that education will once again be a top issue with voters this November.
“Education funding and how we pay for education is what resonates with most voters,” said New England College political science Professor Wayne Lesperance. “The winning formula in the general election is to emphasize quality education built efficiently and at low cost.”
Sununu can argue he’s done just that, Lesperance said.
“On both counts, the governor has an advantage over the Democratic candidates with Granite Staters who are more concerned about the tax implications of doing more in education” Lesperance said. “I would count on thrifty voters pushing back against any proposal that increases taxes.”
Marchand, who attended Gossler Park from second through fifth grades, said that public schools are “the great equalizer in America.”
“There is no way that I get any of the opportunities that I have had in my life if it was not for quality public education here in Manchester and in Goffstown, the two places I went to school,” he said.
Marchand highlighted increasing starting pay for public school teachers as part of his six-point education plan, calling for resources to targeted communities for lifting teacher pay.
“The most important part of delivering quality education is the quality of the teacher. And the easiest and best way to get a quality teacher into your community is to get them while they’re new. Attract them early in their career. Get them with strong teacher pay and if you sustain that you can have them for a lifetime career,” he explained.
His proposals also included state support for pre-kindergarten – commonly known as pre-K – which is preschool programs for children below the age of 5.
“We are still one of six states that don’t provide state funding for pre-K,” Marchand said.
And he highlighted that, other than New Hampshire, “every state east of South Dakota provides some state funding for pre-K.”