Casey unveils early education plan

By:  Jonathan Tamari

WASHINGTON – Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) unveiled a plan Wednesday to boost early childhood education across the country, encouraging more students to enroll and increasing requirements for teachers.

The proposal, which he said is similar to one he rolled out in 2007, comes weeks after President Obama mentioned early education in his State of the Union speech, a development Casey hopes will add to momentum for the initiative.

“This is one of the best ways to ensure that we have the kind of skilled workforce that we’re going to need not only in Pennsylvania but in the country in the years ahead,” Casey said in a conference call. “You can’t really begin a conversation about economic growth or job creation or building the kind of skill levels we need to compete with countries around the world unless we make the investment we should make in early learning.”

Casey plans to formally introduce a bill called the “Prepare All Kids Act” later this week.

His proposal aims to provide prekindergarten education with federal money for states that “want to establish, enhance or expand their pre-K programs.” The federal money would match new state spending, Casey said.

The plan would also limit pre-K class sizes under the program to 20 children and require that prekindergarten teachers have baccalaureate degrees.

States would decide if they wanted to participate and receive the federal funds.

Casey, though, did not say how much his bill would cost or how much he is seeking to fund his plan. The federal government just began a series of cuts and there is still strong opposition in the Republican-controlled House to most new spending.

“We’ve got to be very thoughtful about the dollar amount we can invest,” Casey said. “We may have to make the initial investment much smaller than we would like.”

Casey said he is “perfectly willing to start small” on funding, and the amount of money that could be devoted would depend on the level of support he can build. He conceded that “this issue, frankly, has not been very bipartisan.”

Casey’s effort is separate from Obama’s though the senator said he hoped he could work with the administration.

Casey said only 17 percent of three- and four-year-olds in Pennsylvania receive early childhood education and in some other states the percentage is lower. The state’s pre-K program served just four percent of Pennsylvania’s preschool aged children, he said.

Improving early education, Casey said, is a key to improving the economy.

“This is how we out-compete the Chinese,” Casey said. “This isn’t just a nice thing to do for children, it’s imperative.”