Addressing Early Childhood Education in the States

By Matt Weyer | Vol . 24, No. 45 / December 2016


Did you know?

  • When African-American and Hispanic students attend high-quality preschools, the achievement gap between them and their white peers disappears.
  • There is a 60-percent increase in likelihood that children without a high-quality preschool education will not go to college.
  • Students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school.

Preschool funding approached nearly $7 billion nationwide during the 2015-2016 academic year, up 12 percent from the previous year. Funding is primarily used to increase access and create more high-quality preschools.

Even in the face of increased funding, however, large gaps in skills still exist among certain populations, largely based on their lack of access to early childhood education (ECE). For example, African-American and Hispanic 4-year-olds are, on average, nine to 10 months behind their white peers in math skills and seven to 12 months behind in reading when they enter kindergarten, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

With data confirming the importance of early childhood education to future success and implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on the horizon, states have been active in creating innovative early education legislation. 

Federal Action

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states now have increased flexibility and autonomy to craft innovative early childhood education policies to meet their constituents’ needs. Provisions include increasing quality and access to high-quality early education programs, creating stronger partnerships between preschool providers and school districts, coordinating funding approaches between state and federal government, and facilitating transitions to kindergarten. The law also aims to prevent fade-out, when the effects of high-quality preschool are lost during the kindergarten through third-grade years and beyond due to a variety of factors, including large student-to-teacher ratios, half-day kindergarten and others.

Specifically, ESSA allows Title I funding to be used for developing and enhancing preschool programs. It also requires states to report the number and percentage of students enrolled in preschool and address the transition from preschool to kindergarten. New funding is also available for supporting transitions, improving family engagement, providing professional development for preschool personnel and developing comprehensive literacy plans as early as birth. ESSA also creates a new preschool development program under Title IX. 

State Action

State lawmakers across the country introduced nearly 1,100 bills related to prekindergarten through third-grade education during 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions. The bills tackle early childhood education with diverse approaches. They include creating governance structures; identifying and assisting dual language learners; promoting family engagement; certifying early education teachers; and improving literacy, school readiness, transitions between grades, and instruction in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), to name a few.

To further study the issue, NCSL has created a 15-member State Policy and Research for Early Education Working Group (SPREE). This group of state legislators, legislative staff, and early childhood education researchers and experts aims to create a policy framework for state legislators to use to improve their early childhood education systems. SPREE will present successful strategies to meet the needs of the country’s youngest learners, with its main publication and framework, sponsored by the Heising-Simons Foundation, to be released in late 2017.


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