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Casey visits Lehighton, promotes education policy

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey spent Monday morning reading Dr. Seuss to some of Lehighton Area School District’s youngest students, before meeting with administrators and staff to outline how he hopes Congress can give those youth the best opportunities to succeed in the future.

In town to pitch his “Five Freedoms For America’s Children” educational policy plan, Casey first read “The Foot Book” during a tour of the Pre-K Counts classroom at Lehighton Area Elementary Center.

“Everyone says they are worried about kids, but then kids get pushed to the back of the agenda in Washington,” Casey said. “I announced this Five Freedoms plan in 2020, partly because it’s an election year. Every candidate should be asked whether you support this type of policy, and if you don’t, what is your plan? I would like to see a presidential debate just about kids.”

The plan

Casey’s plan includes the:

• Freedom to Be Healthy: Recommending automatic Medicaid eligibility from birth through age 18.

• Freedom to Be Economically Secure: Recommending expanding the Child Tax Credit and allowing parents to claim it monthly, and creating children’s saving accounts that are seeded annually with $500 in government contributions, that children can later use in pursuit of a postsecondary education, homeownership or a business enterprise.

• Freedom to Learn: Recommending an additional annual investment of $7 billion to expand affordable child care and early learning programs; an additional investment of $18 billion annually to ensure that Head Start can cover all eligible 3- to 5-year-old children; and a substantial expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to help working families cover the cost of child care.

• Freedom from Hunger: Recommending enhancing automatic certification of more children for school meal programs, expanding universal school lunch and breakfast, and increasing retroactive reimbursement of school meals for eligible children who were not initially certified for school meals.

• Freedom to be Safe from Harm: Recommending $250 million per year in community-based child abuse prevention; $250 million per year for child protective services; and $250 million per year to state Attorney General offices to prioritize investigation and prosecution of crimes against children.

How it gets done

While holding a 33-page book outlining his plan, Casey said the easy part is over.

“The harder part is getting consensus to move forward,” he said. “There is a big divide in Washington on a lot of these issues. You have to make some tough calls on the tax code. There are about 13,000 children in this county. The question we have to ask ourselves is 15 years from now, what did we do to move them forward? Some of those 13,000 may not need a lot of help, but a lot of kids do and we have to make that investment. There is a light inside of every child and it’s up to us to make sure that light shines to its full potential.”

Casey said while many people label the plan as one aimed at urban areas, the facts show a different story.

“The perception doesn’t fit the reality,” he said. “In this state, 48 out of 67 counties, including Carbon, are considered rural. “Poverty in rural areas is very high. The utilization of CHIP and Medicaid is actually higher in rural areas. We have to invest in those communities.”

Legislation to accompany the plan has yet to be introduced. Casey said Monday his office is still considering the most effective way to do it.

“We may have to have micro initiatives so if we can’t get a big bill passed, we can pass them in parts,” he said. “This will take many years to show the progress we want to show.”

Lehighton’s support

There to greet Casey on Monday was a contingent of Lehighton administrators and staff including Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver, Assistant to the Superintendent Tim Tkach, Lehighton Area Elementary Center K-2 Principal Aaron Sebelin and reading specialist Ashley Lichtenwalner. The senator’s words were encouraging, particularly for Sebelin, who has seen the evolution of Lehighton’s Pre-K program, now in its third year.

“Many of his points directly impact our kids,” Sebelin said. “He understands an investment in our youngest kids is gigantic. We’re finding with our Pre-K program, that those children are ready to move into kindergarten and the primary grades.”

Lehighton currently has a morning and afternoon Pre-K session, with 20 3- and 4-year-old children in each. Tkach said the district would eventually like to have the 4-year-old students there all day, and morning and afternoon sessions for the 3-year-olds, with 20 students in each class.

“Right now, we’re getting $4,500 per student for the Pre-K program, so if we could see that expanded at all, that would be great,” Tkach said. “That has been pretty consistent for the past couple of years. That takes care of salaries, benefits, and meals for the kids, as well as programs supplies. The earlier you get to these kids, it’s a great equalizer. It takes that socio-economic disadvantage right out of the equation. It puts everyone on a level playing field.”

Cleaver said the district would support Casey in any way it can when it comes to his educational initiatives.

“If we have to take a trip to Washington with some staff and parents to testify to the impact of early education and our program here, that’s something we’re willing to do,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey reads Dr. Seuss’ “The Foot Book” to Lehighton Area Elementary Center students on Monday during a visit to the school. See a video at tnonline.com. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey reads Dr. Seuss’ “The Foot Book” to Lehighton Area Elementary Center students on Monday during a visit to the school. See a video at tnonline.com. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS
Amber Williams, a teacher with the Lehighton Area School District’s Pre-K Counts program, explains one of the class’s projects to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey on Monday. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey listens to Ashley Lichtenwalner, a Lehighton Area Elementary Center reading specialist, during his visit to the school Monday. Casey outlined his Five Freedoms For America’s Children educational policy plan. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS