Legislative Children’s Caucuses 

By Meghan McCann and Bethany Anderson  | Vol . 26, No. 08 / February 2018

NCSL News

Did you know?

  • A legislative caucus is usually defined as an informal meeting of a group of the members, most commonly based on political party affiliation, but may have other bases, such as gender, race, geographic location or specific issue.
  • According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, in the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second.
  • The longest-running children’s caucus is the Keiki Caucus in Hawaii, founded in 1994.

In addition to the traditional Democratic and Republican Caucuses that exist in many state legislatures, several states have created caucuses based on gender, ethnicity and geography. Caucuses have also been formed based on public policy issues, including those that focus on issues affecting children and families.

While child welfare is continually of interest to state legislatures, focus on children’s first years has increased over the last decade, thanks to several reports and studies on early brain science and the return on investment of early, high-quality child care and education. A resulting, emerging trend among state legislatures is the formation of legislative children’s caucuses, created to promote children’s issues and educate members and the public about the topic.

State Action

The longest-running children’s caucus is the Keiki Caucus in Hawaii. Founded, in 1994, the caucus brings together stakeholders to form a legislative package to address a variety of issues affecting Hawaii’s children and their families. The legislation submitted by the caucus moves through the Legislature “tagged” as a Keiki Caucus bill, signifying that it has been discussed and recommended by the caucus. One pending bill, for example, would expand the qualifying age for the “open doors” preschool program to children age 4 and younger.

The most recently created children’s caucus is in Maine, where national and state experts are brought in to educate legislators and legislative staff about issues related to early childhood and child development. Maine’s caucus does not promote or propose legislation like Hawaii's; its primary role is to inform and educate.

Over the past 24 years, there have been several states that have created their own legislative children’s caucuses. The common feature is their bipartisan and bicameral membership and participation. Caucus membership is also limited to the legislature, not to be confused with children’s cabinets that also exist in many states. Children’s cabinets typically include membership from the executive branch, agencies, advocates and the legislature.

The main difference between legislative children’s caucuses is the purpose for which they were founded and are used. While some states, like Hawaii, focus on promoting policy and setting a legislative agenda, others, like Maine, focus on education and programming.

Given term limits and high legislative turnover, sustainability of children’s caucuses has been identified as a challenge. In many cases, the caucuses are active as long as the founding member(s) are in the legislature. This tendency has caused states with newer caucuses, including Colorado and Wisconsin, to recruit third-party groups to provide administrative assistance, which ideally will ensure a caucus’ sustainability.

Wisconsin: A Case Study. In 2015, Wisconsin Representative Joan Ballweg began collaborating with colleagues in the state Senate to create the Wisconsin Legislative Children’s Caucus. Interest in learning more about children’s issues and innovative policies was sparked from a symposium on early brain development and an advisory council on “trauma-informed care,” or care that takes into account how traumatic events experienced in childhood can shape one’s life.

After connecting with a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators, caucus members asked NCSL to facilitate conversations among states that had active children’s caucuses. Months of research, planning and the creation of a steering committee led to the April 2016 kick-off meeting.

Wisconsin’s Legislative Children’s Caucus was developed with sustainability at the forefront. Following the example of the Colorado Children’s Caucus, Wisconsin created a four-co-chair model, with representation from each chamber and party. Caucus founders also partnered with a third party to provide administrative assistance and to serve as a consistent point of contact in the uncertain world of politics. The children’s caucus also made a conscious decision to promote education among its members, rather than push specific policy. Wisconsin is a historically purple state, and the founding members didn’t want partisan issues to distract from their group. They also created a strong web presence, developing a website and social media brand. The website has served as an archive to provide a history of the group’s events and a place to access recordings of most of their programming.

Reconvening in 2017, the Wisconsin Legislative Children’s Caucus took its programming on the road. The caucus hosted a series of information hearings on Community Efforts to Strengthen Families. Once back at the Capitol, the caucus continued to host programming on the trends members heard while touring the state and learned from KIDS COUNT data in Wisconsin.

States with Active Children’s Caucuses

  • Colorado’s Children’s Caucus presents four to five educational programs for lawmakers each session.
  • Connecticut’s Early Childhood Caucus meets weekly to discuss issues and pending legislation.
  • Delaware’s Legislative Kids Caucus presents an annual legislative platform.
  • Hawaii’s Keiki Caucus meets annually with nonprofits, educators and other stakeholders to develop a package of legislation to be introduced by caucus members.
  • Maine’s Early Childhood Caucus meets several times during session to hear from experts on child care and early childhood issues.
  • New Hampshire’s Legislative Caucus for Young Children proposes and monitors legislation, and gathers information from nonprofits and agencies serving children at an annual forum.
  • Pennsylvania’s Early Care and Education Caucus supports programs that promote health and educational development for at-risk children.
  • Wisconsin’s Legislative Children’s Caucus offers programs on early childhood brain development and effective early learning.