Skip to main content
Expand All

Ensuring Children Are Ready To Learn

State legislators have been in the forefront of efforts to create and improve early learning programs. Some states have maximized the use of the state and federally funded Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) and used even more of their state funds to increase the access, quality and effectiveness of early learning opportunities. Several states have special initiatives to improve the training and compensation of early learning teachers. States have voluntarily supplemented the federal Head Start program, and states have created their own pre-kindergarten programs. States have encouraged parental involvement to enhance children’s’ early learning experiences and have supported efforts to ensure a smooth transition between early learning programs and the K-12 education systems.

The State-Federal Partnership in Early Learning

Federal efforts to expand or improve early learning opportunities for young children must:

  • Avoid unfunded mandates and preserve state authority.
  • Provide funding to states in block grants that allow states the flexibility to meet local needs utilizing a wide range of early learning programs.
  • Avoid a state maintenance of effort requirement (MOE). If MOE is required, allow states to use a wide range of resources as match for federal dollars, such as state and local funds not used to match another federal program, private funds, and in-kind contributions such as facilities, equipment, and services.
  • Ensure that eligibility requirements are set at the state level.
  • Ensure state legislative authority to appropriate the funds.
  • Provide state legislatures access to student outcome data for students that participate in federally funded early childhood learning opportunities.
  • Include state legislators as appropriate on advisory panels.

Existing Federal Programs

Federal efforts to support early learning programs should not be made at the expense of efforts to expand the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF). NCSL’s Policy Directive on Child Care details state priorities in CCDF.

The federal Head Start program provides early learning services for low income families that foster school readiness. NCSL values the program’s emphasis on parental involvement, which can benefit both parents and children. State legislators should be included in any discussions of options that provide states the opportunity to have more control over the program or better coordinate Head Start with other state early learning efforts. To ensure high-quality outcomes in the Head Start program, NCSL supports:

  • Strong staff development and training.
  • Greater coordination among Head Start, early learning programs and elementary schools.
  • Funding for both quality, access and multiple providers.
  • Expanding opportunities for grantees to use Head Start funding to meet community; needs in ways that complement state efforts.
  • Disseminating research findings from evaluations.
  • Providing state legislatures access to student outcome data for students that participate in Head Start.
  • Encouraging legislative involvement in Early Childhood Advisory Councils.

Family Support and Parental Involvement

NCSL recognizes the vital role of parents, families, communities and faith-based organizations in the healthy development of children and in creating systems of high-quality early learning in their states and local communities. NCSL supports states being provided maximum flexibility in using federal funds for early learning and to support a broad range of parent engagement strategies, such as home visiting programs and two-generation approaches, and to develop new early learning policies and initiatives that support parents and families to ensure that their children and all children are ready to learn.

The State-Federal Partnership in Elementary and Secondary Education

Elementary and secondary education policy is defined broadly by state constitutions, specified by state statutes and implemented by state agencies, school boards and local school districts. State legislators believe that the federal role should be as a supportive partner instead of an intrusive, top-down role. A healthy state-federal partnership in the vital task of educating America’s children:

  • Avoids unfunded and underfunded mandates, and fully funds federal requirements for education programs, activities, and reporting. It is both ineffective and unconstitutional to expect states to accomplish national goals that the federal government is not willing to fully fund. The policies and activities associated with federal education programs, regardless of federal funding levels, should be encouraged and not mandated. Further, federal reporting requirements should be reasonable and not require the use of funds that could otherwise be spent on program delivery.
  • Encourages state innovation. States are inherently more capable than the federal government of moving quickly to initiate or change policies, can be more sensitive to public needs and can generate broader buy-in for policy changes from local school districts. State flexibility, in addition to being an effective means of making public services more cost effective, provides an opportunity for state legislators to integrate federal, state and local programs into a coordinated system.
  • Respects state law and avoids inappropriate federal preemption. Creative solutions to public problems can be achieved more readily when state laws are accorded due respect. Any attempt to preempt should be balanced against the potential loss of accountability, innovation and responsiveness. Unless a clear and compelling case for national uniformity exists, every effort should be made to allow state governments to respond without federal intervention to local conditions. The federal government should specifically restrain involvement in the following respects:
    • State academic standards. State legislators support the adoption and implementation of high-quality and rigorous state academic standards as determined by state policymakers. The federal government should not--through legislative or regulatory action or funding opportunities--mandate, direct, control, coerce or incentivize states to adopt a national set of common academic standards. State participation in consortia and other multi-state collaborations should remain voluntary and the federal government should refrain from conditioning the receipt of grant funding upon adoption of common academic  standards.
    • State academic assessments. State legislators support the adoption and use of high-quality assessments aligned to state-determined academic standards. The federal government should not--through legislative or regulatory action or funding opportunities--mandate, direct, control, coerce or incentivize states to adopt a common assessment. State participation in consortia and other multi-state collaborations should remain voluntary, and the federal government should refrain from conditioning the receipt of grant funding upon adoption of a common assessment.
  • Recognizes that K-12 education is predominantly a state and local financial and legal responsibility. Federal government spending is less than 10% of the nationwide K-12 budget and should not be used to exercise a disproportionate impact on education policy at the state and local level.
  • State legislatures have plenary authority over their systems of finance for elementary and secondary education. Federal grants should not be conditioned in any way that would alter or amend a state’s school finance methodology.
  • Preserves and respects state flexibility to implement and administer new block grants. If categorical federal education programs are consolidated into block grants, these grants should:
    • Include legislative language stating that block grant funding should be expended according to state law,
    • Not limit states to the kinds of activities funded under corresponding block grants for past categorical programs, and
    • Provide adequate federal funding to assure the continuation of services.
  • Maintains steady resource streams, such as formula funding, as the primary funding source for state education aid.
  • Distributes competitive grant funds, when appropriate, for targeted purposes, in a transparent and consistent process.
  • Respects state budget processes. Federal funds should be incorporated into state budget processes for open hearings and deliberations. Federal funding going directly to state or sub-state bureaucracies or agencies should not bypass state legislative appropriations and oversight procedures. Takes into consideration state appropriation and legislative calendars. Sufficient time must be allowed for states to implement new federal legislation and regulation.
  • Maximizes state flexibility to implement and administer federal programs through a streamlined waiver process. This is critical to ensure that states are not unduly burdened by federal regulation or legislation.
  • Provides opportunity for ongoing communication with and technical assistance from the federal government in lieu of federal regulatory action.


Acknowledges the constitutional and statutory authority over education policy that rests with the state legislatures by ensuring state legislators are represented in all “timely and meaningful” consultation requirements in the creation or reauthorization of any federal law relating to elementary and secondary education.


Federal Education Relief Aid (Resolution)

WHEREAS, state legislatures have the primary responsibility for funding and governing their state’s K-12 and higher education systems; and

WHEREAS, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund provided historic amounts of one-time federal funds that gave school districts, rather than states, discretion over how to spend ninety percent of funds; and

WHEREAS, school districts were granted unprecedented flexibility over how funds were spent; and

WHEREAS, states were expressly prohibited from directing or restricting school district spending; and

WHEREAS, school districts, by recent estimates, are expected to spend close to half of the total allocated local share of ESSER funds over the next year; and

WHEREAS, any pressure to rapidly draw down of tens of billions in ESSER funds may exacerbate inflation and potentially encourage local spending without a clear plan for sustainability; and

WHEREAS, a sudden and steep reduction in one-time funds, especially if spent on what are typically considered recurring expenses, could cause fiscal turmoil in school districts that state legislatures may be expected to respond to; and 

WHEREAS, each state has its own unique system for funding K-12 and higher education; and

WHEREAS, fiscal conditions can vary significantly across states, especially during times of national economic emergencies; and

WHEREAS, education is a significant part of state budgets, other compelling priorities may make demands on state resources while states respond to and recovery from emergencies; and

WHEREAS, Congress has included maintenance of effort provisions for both K-12 and higher education funding from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2023 as a condition of a state receiving funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund; and

WHEREAS, Congress has also included “maintenance of equity” provisions for K-12 funding in fiscal years 2022 and 2023;

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the National Conference of State Legislatures believes unanticipated federal funding for education should not bypass state legislative appropriations processes and should allow state legislatures broad discretion in determining how those funds will best meet local and state education needs; and

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the National Conference of State Legislatures believes Congress should extend the spending deadline for ESSER to December 31, 2026 in order to smooth the rate of school district spending, which could mitigate the inflationary impact of a rapid draw down of funds and give state legislatures more time to conduct oversight and evaluate whether and how certain ESSER expenditures could be sustained; and

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the National Conference of State Legislatures believes the U.S. Department of Education should implement an orderly and timely process for states and districts to request and receive permission for a late liquidation of funds well in advance of the ESSER III obligation deadline of September 30th, 2024; and

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the Secretary of Education should allow states the opportunity to seek waivers from the maintenance of effort and “maintenance of equity” provisions associated with the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund; and

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the National Conference of State Legislatures believes state fiscal requirements for education relief aid should only ask states to maintain aggregate funding levels or serve as a guide for how states can make cuts to education if facing revenue declines.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the National Conference of State Legislatures believes state fiscal requirements should not be used to compel states to make fiscal or policy decisions beyond the purposes enumerated above, which includes requiring states to increase funding for education or distribute funds to local education agencies by methods other than a state’s statutorily defined school funding formula. 

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that NCSL send a copy of this resolution to Members of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education.


Federal Funding for Special Education

The nation's legislators support equal opportunity for all citizens and support the purposes and spirit of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This law and its subsequent amendments mandate that states provide a free and appropriate education (FAPE) and procedural safeguards for all children with disabilities without regard to costs incurred by the states and local school districts.

The original federal special education law and its subsequent amendments include a provision that authorizes the federal government to fund 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditures (APPE) in K-12 nationwide, an estimate at the time of the excess cost for educating a special education student that the federal government would bear. Since its enactment, the federal government has appropriated funds at levels between 8 and 17 percent of APPE. Congress attempted to address this issue in the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004 by setting voluntary spending targets in a “glide path” to full funding by 2011. However, Congress failed to appropriate the authorized level of funds, and states received $57.1 billion less than they would have had if Congress had kept its commitment.

Federal support for special education is critical. State and federal laws and regulation, combined with the extensive and increasingly complex case law that has developed around special education, have made the practice of delivering services to students with disabilities complex and costly for states and communities. In fact, recent reports indicate that actual spending for special education services is 95 percent above APPE – not 40 percent.

Given these circumstances, NCSL strongly urges Congress to appropriate the moneys to fully fund the 40 percent of APPE statutorily authorized in Part B of IDEA. One way for Congress to strengthen its commitment to special education would be to move the Part B allotments for special education from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the federal budget.

NCSL Affirms Importance of Civil Education

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recognizes that voter turnout in the United States lags behind that of other countries, with approximately 60% participation in presidential elections and only 40% in midterm election years. To address this challenge and increase voter turnout over the long term, cultivating social and political engagement among students is a crucial strategy.

NCSL has been committed to promoting and supporting civic education and learning. NCSL established the Trust for Representative Democracy, and through this initiative sponsored the Legislators Back to School Week, fostering engagement between lawmakers and students. Over time, NCSL has produced a variety of materials, including educational resources on the legislative process, and the podcast "Building our Democracy". NCSL has conducted extensive training for legislators, both domestically and abroad, in partnership with the US State Department, media, and the general public, focusing on the legislative and elections processes. NCSL is also a proud member of the CivXNow Coalition, a collective of over 250 organizations dedicated to promoting civic education.

Civic education plays a fundamental role in preparing and encouraging students to actively participate in the public and political life of their communities. By engaging in civics, students learn to identify and understand social problems, evaluate potential solutions, distinguish evidence-based claims from opinions, and take meaningful action based on what they have learned. This preparation fosters the development of a robust and healthy civil society.

Moreover, civic education is essential for the functioning of a democratic republic, particularly in relation to the legislative function and the creation of sound laws that enjoy the support and engagement of an informed citizenry. By equipping individuals with knowledge about their rights, responsibilities, and the inner workings of government, civic education empowers them to actively contribute to the democratic process and effectively advocate for their communities.

In conclusion, NCSL remains committed to promoting civic education as an indispensable component of a vibrant democracy. By continuing our work in this field, collaborating with legislators, educators, and partners, and actively participating in national conversations and events, we strive to create a more informed, engaged, and participatory citizenry that ensures the vitality and strength of our democratic institutions.

The State-Federal Partnership in Postsecondary Education

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) offers another opportunity to renew this country’s commitment to accessible and affordable postsecondary education and remove barriers encountered by a changing student population. A strong higher education system supports individual financial success, provides a foundation for healthy state economies and ensures our nation’s position in a global economy. When students fall through the cracks, they do not achieve their full potential and neither does our country. The federal government has an important role to play in supporting low-income students, conducting research on innovation and productivity, monitoring national and regional programming efforts, and providing data and technical assistance to help states examine and analyze our institutions.

Postsecondary Affordability

Reauthorization efforts directing federal aid to students who need it most and helping them quickly become productive members in their communities without substantial debt will help local, state, and national economies. If federal aid is limited, there are fiscal impacts for state-funded efforts to support students.

The federal government should ensure adequate federal funding for the Pell Grant program to help reduce dependency on student loans. Congress should review Pell Grant award amounts to guarantee that the purchasing value of this important grant does not continue to erode and consider moving Pell funding to the mandatory side of the federal budget. Congress should also ensure Pell serves the broadest number of students, including adult students enrolled part-time. The federal government should continue to reduce barriers or obstacles that may prevent students from applying for federal financial aid.

If Congress considers a new grant program to create a state-federal funding partnership in higher education, the nation’s legislators remind Congress that states are primarily responsible for funding and governing their higher education systems. While each state has different traditions and goals for its higher education institutions, all institutions participate in a national higher education marketplace that crosses state lines. Congress must recognize this by ensuring that any new affordability programs can benefit students and institutions of all types in all states and territories. Broad state participation should be a fundamental goal of any state-federal partnership. 

A state-federal funding partnership in higher education must:

  • provide funding to states in block grants that allow states the flexibility to distribute funds across institutions and state financial aid programs;
  • Avoid a state maintenance of effort requirement (MOE). As states continue to prioritize and address competing public needs, federal policy must acknowledge this reality by noting the fiscal constraints states face in satisfying maintenance of effort requirements for important postsecondary programs. If MOE is required, allow states to use a wide range of resources as match for federal dollars, such as state and local funds not used to match another federal program. MOEs should be constructed to provide legislatures certainty they will comply with MOE provisions when budgeting for the upcoming fiscal year;
  • continue to defer to state authority in regulating postsecondary tuition levels;
  • ensure that eligibility requirements are set at the state level; and
  • ensure state legislative authority to appropriate the funds.

The federal government should design college savings incentives at the federal level so as to stimulate and complement, rather than preempt, similar policy initiatives by states and higher education institutions. Legislators support student aid programs that serve state and national economic and workforce priorities.


Legislators strongly urge the federal government to defer to the states’ leadership in ensuring the quality of postsecondary education, and to facilitate state efforts to emphasize accountability. While the federal government has a role in monitoring national and regional accrediting bodies, accountability of state higher education programs and institutions is and should remain a state issue. The federal government should continue to support state authorization reciprocity agreements, which support expanded access to quality postsecondary distance learning opportunities nationwide.

Teacher Preparation

States have taken the lead in advocating for higher standards for teacher preparation and performance, and vigorously acted to improve assessments of quality. As such, the federal government must refrain from setting national standards. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) encourages the expansion of several programs embodied in the Higher Education Act and other federal legislation that focuses on teacher quality. States should be included as eligible applicants or encouraged as partners in federal grant projects, so that grant programs can be developed with statewide goals in mind and best practices can be shared broadly.

Student Success

Our country will remain internationally competitive if more high school age, non-traditional students, and working adults not only enroll in colleges and universities, but complete postsecondary credentials and degrees. Ensuring students gain skills competency no matter the means used to obtain that competency will help states and the nation increase productivity, improve competitiveness, and prepare future generations of leaders and citizens. States, working with national foundations, institutions, and private partners, are implementing policies that focus on maintaining access to postsecondary education and improving student performance and outcomes. NCSL supports federal programs that complement state efforts to improve student participation in and completion of postsecondary education. Legislators welcome federal efforts, such as the College Scorecard, that provide prospective students with accurate information on college costs and institution- and program-level student outcomes. Increased transparency is critical to ensuring students are able to make informed postsecondary choices.

Legislators are keenly aware that students benefit from a seamless progression encompassing preschool through postsecondary education. A growing number of states are looking at education as “P-16” rather than separate systems serving early education, K-12 and postsecondary education and updating or amending their statutes to facilitate this change. Important federal-state educational programs supported by the states, such as the Perkins Act programs and the TRIO program, must be better integrated with state postsecondary policy. The federal government has a significant role and responsibility in working with states and supporting state efforts in college readiness and providing research and technical assistance. Legislators welcome federal efforts to facilitate the exchange of best practices around dual enrollment programs.

Student Loans

Increasingly the burden of higher education costs is borne by students and families. This burden consists of significant educational debt held by students and their families. Crippling education debt slows any recovery and limits state economic growth. The federal government should make every effort to improve the federal student loan program so that borrowers are able to successfully repay their loans and take advantage of federal loan forgiveness programs.

The federal government should also recognize that many states now play a role in ensuring borrowers are treated fairly and receive appropriate consumer protections. The federal government should engage in collaborative federalism with states around providing consumer protections to borrowers and conducting oversight of student loan servicers.

School Safety and Student Mental Health

Youth mental health, along with school safety and security, are perennial challenges faced by our nation. State legislatures recognize the need for increased school safety for children and educators in their state, as well as the increasing demand for mental health services and support.

State legislators see the federal government as a partner in supporting school security and the safeguarding of student mental health. State legislators firmly believe that the best structure for this partnership is a collaborative approach between the federal government and the states, consisting of federal funding and other means of support that are flexible enough to allow state legislatures to directly leverage these resources where they are most needed. State legislatures are best positioned to be responsive to the unique needs of their constituents.

The federal government should not mandate or incentivize specific strategies or approaches to school security and student mental health. When emergencies warrant the swift provision of federal resources to support school security and student mental health, funds should be distributed through existing programs or provided through flexible block grants to states.


Student Athlete Compensation

In 2019, California became the first state to pass legislation that would allow student athletes compensation for the use of their name, image, or likeness (NIL). The laws would allow students in varying ways to sign endorsement deals, earn money for public appearances, sell autographs or other items, and enter deals with companies for marketing purposes. Over half of the states have taken similar action since then. Numerous bills have been introduced in Congress that would provide a system for how student athletes can negotiate contracts and otherwise profit off their NIL. NCSL urges consultation with the states on all these issues.

NCSL strongly supports the ability of the states to determine the best system for their student athletes. NCSL opposes any efforts by Congress to preempt state laws that provide earning rights to students and believes that any federal legislation should be complementary to state laws.

Student Data Privacy

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recognizes the need to ensure that parents and students can trust that data collected—e.g., attendance, course taking, grades and test scores—as part of the educational experience, is kept safe, secure and private.  State legislators firmly believe that any efforts to change federal laws and regulations related to the collection, storage and use of student data, must preserve state and local flexibility and provide opportunities to support state autonomy and local control in this area.  Any federal action must:

  • Support state capacity to safeguard data by providing technical assistance.
  • Align the multiple federal laws that affect student data.
  • Reduce the burden on states in terms of collecting and reporting data.
  • Promote transparency of data collection.
  • Build the capacity of all stakeholders to use data in a way that promotes educational purposes and allows for personalized or adaptive learning, but protects student privacy.
  • Allow state legislative auditors and program evaluators and other appropriate legislative staff access to student data, in a form determined by each state, in order to carry out their state constitutional and statutory duties to audit and evaluate educational programs.
  • Promote the building, maintaining and updating of state data infrastructure, including enhancing state longitudinal data systems.
  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.