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By Gintautas Dumcius

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE — Dozens of lawmakers are calling for the preservation of kindergarten expansion funds for school districts, saying a proposed elimination would be a “disservice” to thousands of young children.

But a top House legislator, citing a budget deficit, said the expansion program’s objective — full-day kindergarten becoming the norm across the state — largely has been met.

“It’s a real challenge given the budget deficit that we’re facing, trying to determine is the money better spent in continuing this program or is it better to go into grants that are more directed to the problems we’re facing today,” said Rep. Alice Peisch, House chair of the Joint Committee on Education. “Tough question.”

Eighty-three Democratic and Republican lawmakers recently sent a letter to House budget chief Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill) asking for the House not to go along with a funding elimination proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker in his spending plan for fiscal year 2016.

They asked for the expansion program to be funded at the same level as in fiscal year 2015, a total of $18.4 million.

“With the help of these grants, the percentage of children statewide attending a full-day program has risen from 29 to 88 percent between fiscal years 1999 and 2014,” they wrote. “Cutting this funding now would be a disservice to thousands of young children across the Commonwealth.”

The funding is a “necessary resource” for communities to fund a full-day kindergarten program, they added.

Lawmakers who signed the letter included Reps. David Linsky (D-Natick), Byron Rushing (D-Boston), Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown), Louis Kafka (D-Stoughton), and Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough).

“We’re trying to get more money back to our school districts,” Rep. Timothy Whelan, a Brewster Republican, told the News Service. He was one of seven Republicans who signed on to the letter.

“Governor Baker was left with a very unhealthy budget from the previous administration,” Whelan acknowledged.

In crafting a $38.1 billion fiscal 2016 budget, the Baker administration has noted they are seeking to close a $1.8 billion budget gap.

Sen. Karen Spilka, chair of the Senate budget-writing committee and an Ashland Democrat, said kindergarten expansion funds will be “one of the issues that we look at.”

But, she added, “It’s going to be a tight year.”

A Baker spokesman declined comment when asked about the letter from lawmakers.

Peisch, the Education Committee chair, said school districts can receive additional money for full-day kindergarten through Chapter 70 funds.

Baker administration officials say every school district will see an increase in education funding under the governor’s budget proposal. Baker has also proposed consolidating 11 grant programs into one program to focus on under-performing schools.

“I think the challenge we are facing is there was not a lot of notice to districts that this was going to happen, and some districts do in fact get a substantial amount of funding, hundreds of thousands of dollars in some places,” Peisch said, referring to the proposed elimination.

“So I think the governor’s budget coming out when it did, the timing was not very good on this,” said Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat. “Whether we’ll be able to provide some sort of transition funding or not remains to be seen.”

Early education advocates were encouraged Wednesday about another aspect of the education budget, reporting that Speaker Robert DeLeo predicted the House budget due out next week will include a “renewed” commitment to early education.