Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Casey aims to jump-start every child's education Proposed federal program not popular with legislators
BY KAREN SHUEY, Staff Writer
Ashley Pierson asks a group of about 15 youngsters to close their eyes, imagine their favorite season and share some of the things that happen during that time of the year.
The little arms shoot into the air.
One student talks about playing in the snow. Another about jumping in a pile of leaves. And another about going to the pool.
This was the scene inside a Head Start classroom last week at Community Action Program of Lancaster County's Queen Street location.
Head Start's focus on early education is the reason U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is a big fan.
In fact, the Scranton Democrat unveiled a proposal last week that would increase the ranks of young children who have access to preschool education.
"You can't begin a discussion about economic growth or job creation or building the kinds of skill levels we need to compete with countries around the world unless we make the investment we should make in early learning," Casey said in a conference call with reporters.
Enthusiasm for universal early education was renewed when President Barack Obama called for its support in his State of the Union address.
But the issue isn't new for Casey, who has been pushing the idea since arriving in the Senate in 2007.
The idea to launch a new federally run program, however, is not popular with most Lancaster County officials. Many say early education should be handled and funded at the local level.
Casey argues that the benefits of preschool access are profound, leading to higher graduation rates and reduced instances of crime and teenage pregnancy.
His latest proposal, the Prepare All Kids Act of 2013, would provide federal matching dollars to states with the goal of providing voluntary preschool for at least one year to every 4-year-old, with a focus on children from low-income families and children with special needs.
In Pennsylvania, about one of every six 3- or 4-year-olds has access to high-quality preschool.
Casey stressed that preschool expansion is part of a broader plan to provide more ladders into the middle class.
Under Casey's proposal, preschool programs would need to adhere to certain requirements to receive federal funding. They include restrictions on class size, a government-approved curriculum and requiring teachers to hold college degrees in certain education-related categories.
"We want to make sure the federal government is a partner in this investment, but we also want to give states the flexibility to create programs that work for them," Casey said.
The proposal also requests an expansion of Head Start and Early Head Start to provide additional child-care and learning programs for toddlers.
Casey refused to detail the cost of the program, saying the first step is to drum up support from the other side of the aisle.
The senator acknowledged that the proposal could face strong opposition in Congress, especially as there is no price tag attached.
And that's where Casey loses some local lawmakers and educators.
"Investing in early education is a great thing, but I'm afraid the states will get stuck holding the bag," state Rep. Keith Greiner said.
The Leola Republican said that without a permanent revenue source he won't be able to back Casey's proposal.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler agrees.
"I have concerns about the costs of any expansion when the federal government has not fully funded prior promises or expansions," the Peach Bottom Republican said.
U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, a former teacher, said he knows the value of getting a good education even at an early age, but that Congress should focus on fixing problems in current federal preschool programs.
"Many of these programs are failing to make a real, lasting impact on educational achievement," he said.
Pitts was referring to a 2012 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study that showed that initial IQ gains fade by the time Head Start participants reach third grade.
Mark Esterbrook, CEO of the Community Action Program of Lancaster County, pointed out that the same report goes on to cite other studies that found Head Start boosts graduation rates, lowers crime rates, increases college attendance and correlates with lower mortality rates.
"A lot of benefits aren't going to show up in testing, but they show up better down the road," said Diane Koon, director of Lancaster County's Head Start program.
But Casey's proposal does come at a time when the Education Department is scrambling to keep current programs funded.
Michael Leichliter, Penn Manor School District superintendent, said current funding for education is being stretched.
"I appreciate what (Casey) is doing because early education is crucial, but schools are already finding it difficult keep existing programs in place," he said.
The Prepare All Kids Act would:
Provide at least one year of voluntary preschool.
Require programs to utilize a research-based curriculum.
Limit classroom size to 20 children and children-to-teacher ratios to no more than 10 to 1.
Require that teachers have degrees (within six years).
Provide funds for programs serving infants and toddlers, ages birth through 3 years old.
Provide funding to expand programs to full-day and year-round.
Support Head Start and child-care programs.
Require states to develop and enforce a monitoring plan.
Encourage parental involvement.