The push for state funding of all-day kindergarten suffered a setback Thursday as a House committee blocked a plan strongly backed by Gov. Janet Napolitano.
The House Appropriations Committee voted 10-6 to reject SB1407, which would phase in all-day kindergarten over five years.
Arguments against the bill included an ongoing budget shortfall and a lack of vouchers or funding for charter schools. Conservatives also said scientific evidence for academic achievement of kindergarten students isn't as strong as proponents claim.
But even those who voted against the bill acknowledged there is enormous pressure on the Legislature, saying they hope Thursday's action will force Napolitano to negotiate a different version.
"We know that we're going to have some kind of full-day kindergarten," said Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford and committee vice chairman. "The question is how are we going to pay for it?"
Blocking SB1407 was part of a daylong series of committee votes on a $7.33 billion budget package passed out of the Senate last week. GOP leaders had said earlier that the House plan would spend nearly $200 million less than the Senate version.
The Senate plan would cost $25 million next year to fund all-day kindergarten in the state's poorest schools. At full implementation in 2009, funding estimates range from $170 million to $200 million a year, with an additional $100 million for classroom construction.
Napolitano has been waging a statewide blitz to win approval to fund voluntary all-day kindergarten programs statewide. She is backed by education advocates and business coalitions that believe earlier childhood education improves literacy and long-term achievements.
However, conservative Republicans insist the state can't yet afford all-day kindergarten, and they also question its effectiveness. Rep. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, cited a multi-year study by the U.S. Department of Education that appears to show children learn better at home.
"They're growing in terms of their awareness of the alphabet, they're growing in terms of their ability to pronounce words," Huppenthal said. "They're growing in terms of their ability to read. And they're growing faster as a result of not being in kindergarten (than) if they were in kindergarten. Kindergarten does not appear to be a healthy place for children."
But proponents said most other studies show children are more likely to succeed in math and reading with all-day kindergarten.
"We looked at the actual practice in Arizona of school districts who have been doing it," said Jim Zaharis, a spokesman for Greater Phoenix Leadership. "We looked at the variety of children in Arizona who come to kindergarten. We found this was the best investment we can make."
Normally, Thursday's committee vote would end the issue for this legislative session. But Napolitano's staff and other supporters of all-day kindergarten have been researching other ways to bring the issue to the House floor.
Napolitano would have to convince moderate Republicans to unite with Democrats against GOP leadership, a politically dicey proposition. Conservatives want the governor to talk about alternatives instead.
"There are those of us that would like to move something forward, that would like to negotiate," Huppenthal said. "But so far, we've been told ‘No, it's our way or the highway.’ "