The federal government should match dollar-for-dollar money spent by states on new or expanded early childhood education programs, according to a proposal by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.

Casey, D-Pa., said Wednesday he is re-introducing legislation that would make the federal government put more money into pre-kindergarten and other early childhood programs, in particular for children whose families are within 200 percent of the poverty level. That's $47,100 in household income for a family of four.

The proposal would create a better partnership between federal and state governments on making sure children are receiving the education they need early on."It makes great sense because we don't have a national strategy on early learning," Casey said.

Pennsylvania already has Head Start and PreKCounts among its early childhood education initiatives. But since the programs aren't big enough to serve all who need it, Casey said it's not enough, considering almost everyone agrees a quality education at the youngest ages helps eventually lower drop-outs, incarceration, and other societal problems.

He also stressed this wouldn't be a mandated program for states or schools. States that wanted to received funding would need to designate additional funds for new or expanded early childhood education for families in need to get the dollar-for-dollar match. States that don't have the money would just not participate.


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And school districts should know that although "there's always a concern about mandates, this is not one of those that they should be concerned about. It's really a partnership," Casey said.

Casey has no answers yet how the federal government would pay for such a contribution.

And Casey had no specifics on how much the program would cost the federal government or state governments, or how exactly the program would operate. Casey acknowledged the concern districts have had over federal and state funding that pops up only to disappear within a few years, leaving districts hanging.

"Sustaining the investment over time is going to be challenging," Casey said.

Instead, Casey said he wanted to get the conversation going again, hoping to eventually get a cooperative agreement with Republicans and with the U.S. Department of Education.

"I want to make sure we have a real partnership," Casey said.

The proposal, first introduced around 2007, has draw praise from the advocacy organization Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children's president Joan Benso. She likened it to the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, that greatly expanded health coverage for children starting in 1997.

"While Pennsylvania began to invest in pre-kindergarten over roughly the past 10 years, our investments still only provide publicly funded pre-k to about one in six 3- and 4-year old children in our state. We need to build on this effort," Benso said.

- Reach Andrew Shaw at ashaw@yorkdispatch.com