Early Childhood 101
Updated March 2014
States are at the forefront of recent advances in early childhood issues. Armed with compelling brain research and economic and evaluation findings, lawmakers are improving services, designing new programs, and expanding investments to support children’s development and early learning and to support working families.
The resources found here are designed to help legislators who are unfamiliar with early childhood policy learn more about: child care, prekindergarten, home visiting, infant and toddler issues, data systems, early childhood advisory councils, and early childhood budgets. Click on the links to the right to navigate to each topic.
Child care subsidy programs have been both a long-standing support for low-income working families and—in the last decade—have been seen as an opportunity to provide environments that support early learning and development. Federal law governing the Child Care and Development Block Grant establishes parameters for how states must operate child care subsidy programs, but many decisions are left to the states. State lawmakers have decision-making authority over who is eligible for the subsidy and what they need to do to receive it. The federal government sets basic health and safety requirements, and the states can take it from there in tailoring their programs.
Some of the major issues in child care include:
- Eligibility: What level of eligibility best meets the needs of the low-income population in your state?
- Reimbursement to providers: At what rate will you reimburse providers so that they are providing the kind of program you expect?
- Program standards: What level of quality do you want from child care programs that serve the most vulnerable children?
- Workforce: How will the state support the teachers in child care to make sure these programs are effective for getting children off to a good start?
- Data: How will the state know how children are doing?
With the focus on improving children's learning in child care as well as preschool settings, state lawmakers have developed what are known as quality rating systems, developed early learning standards for what children should know and be able to do, improved professional development systems for teachers and caregivers, and used assessments and gathered other data to gauge children’s learning.
State legislatures have led the way in developing and expanding state prekindergarten programs in order to improve children’s readiness for school. Forty states and the District of Columbia currently provide a total of $5.3 billion in state funding for pre-K programs. Research shows that quality preschool programs help promote a child’s intellect and build strong social and emotional skills. Understanding the positive return on investment, state legislators have focused on funding expanded services, improving teacher qualifications and enhancing standards.
Home visiting is a strategy to support to pregnant women and new mothers to support healthy child development, prevent child abuse and neglect, and connect families to resources that they need to be good parents. Almost every state is using this strategy as a way to support families, often targeting families with a variety of risk factors. Lawmakers have been champions in designing and funding the program or programs that best meet the needs of the state. There are a number of well-known national program models such as Nurse Family Partnership, Healthy Families or Parents as Teachers as well as many locally developed programs operating in different states. States use a variety of funding sources including general fund, TANF, recovery act funding and Medicaid.
In 2010, a new federal program was created as part of the health care law that will provide $1.5 billion to states to fund evidence-based home visiting. States will be developing their state plans early in 2011 and lawmakers can determine how involved they will be in that process. The new federal funding also provides an opportunity for state leaders to assess current programs and investments and make changes as needed. The most recent trend has been to consider coordinating home visiting programs to ensure the best match between what the family needs and the skills and resources of the home visitor.
Data are a vital resource in state efforts to reduce the school readiness gap and bolster educational achievement for all children. But, states often struggle to obtain data that will answer even basic questions about their state’s public early care and education system or children’s early learning experiences. States are looking to create data systems that will help with decisions about the effectiveness and improvements of early care and education programs, the workforce and better child outcomes. Both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and Race to the Top, which offered incentives for the use and development of education data systems, have advanced this work even further.
Early Childhood Advisory Councils
In 2007 Congress passed the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 which required the governor of each state to designate or establish a council to serve as the state’s early childhood advisory council. In response, governors and legislators across the country have created councils through executive order and legislation.
Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Congress included $100 million to be used to support the work of the state councils. For the original grant, 50 states and territories applied and received funding for their state’s council. Since a handful of states did not apply for funds, the Administration for Children and Families reopened the grant process to allow for supplemental applications for the remaining money. Forty four states and territories applied and received these supplemental grants.
States have begun using these funds to plan and improve early childhood services. Issues the councils are focusing on include home visiting, data systems, kindergarten readiness, child care quality and a number of other topics.
Early Childhood Budgets
State legislators make fiscal decisions in early care and education policy and programs, such as child care, prekindergarten, home visiting and other related early childhood programs. Recent state budget challenges and the effects of ARRA funding on early care and education programs have caused state legislatures to take a closer look at fiscal investments. A recent NCSL fiscal survey found that state FY 2011 appropriations to early care and education remained stable with a slight increase.