Closing Early Learning Opportunity Gaps Under ESSA



Research demonstrates that African-American and Hispanic/Latino children enter kindergarten an average of 7-12 months behind in reading skills and 9-10 months behind in math skills, with even larger gaps existing for low-income students. These gaps often persist and expand as students move through their K-12 education, which impacts education systems, the workforce and state economies. With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, NCSL is working to support state legislators who choose to address opportunity gaps in early learning.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, gives policymakers new options to help close early learning opportunity gaps in their states. Opportunity gaps occur because minority and low-income children often have fewer opportunities to prepare and develop as young learners, due to reduced access to high-quality child care, pre-K, afterschool and extracurricular activities. These gaps generally persist into their K-12 education, creating achievement gaps, a decades-old issue facing every state.

Under the ESSA, states have new policy options for closing early learning opportunity gaps. Learn about these options in the Bill Tracking and Resources section below. 

There is an economic argument for closing opportunity gaps: early childhood education can pay off in big ways for the states, by closing opportunity gaps before they become achievement gaps. To learn more, listen to a recent episode of NCSL's podcast Our American States on The Economic Case for Closing Opportunity Gaps. 


Accountability and Reporting

Under ESSA, states can design new accountability systems that include varied and dynamic indicators of student and school performance, and look more closely at how certain subgroups of students are performing. To support early learning and help close gaps, states might consider including indicators like Pre-K  through third grade classroom quality in their accountability system, or as a tool in their school improvement and intervention strategy.

Reporting as an Intervention Strategy

CT S 1018—Requires the commissioner of education to monitor whether the accountability index score for a school district that receives a priority school district grant has consistently and continually increased during FY 2017 and FY 2019, increasing and reducing grants as necessary in accordance with performance. Changes references to "early reading intervention programs" to "intensive reading instruction program".

IL H 3080—Creates the Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act. Creates the Intergenerational Poverty Plan Implementation Pilot Program to provide funding to counties to implement local solutions to address intergenerational poverty, including partnerships with agencies overseeing early childhood services.

IL H 3303—Requires the state board of education to annually assess all students in reading and mathematics in kindergarten through third grade to meet the goals and standards of the federal Every Student Succeeds act. Requires the state board of education to support assessments that measure academic grade‑level proficiency and academic growth measured against a stable, grade‑independent scale.

NJ A 1331—Provides supplementary funding for K‑3 literacy programs in districts with low proficiency rates.

WV H 2824— Establishes a teacher‑pupil ratio for first through third grade and proficiency requirements for advancement to fourth grade.

Monitoring Early Childhood Suspensions

AZ H 2385—Prohibits a school district or charter school from suspending or expelling a preschool pupil unless certain conditions are met. Provides that, as an alternative, the student may be transferred to another program or temporarily suspended.

CO H 1194—Authorizes a state‑funded, community‑based preschool program, school district, or charter school to impose an out‑of‑school suspension or expel a student enrolled in preschool through second grade under specified circumstances. Limits the length of suspension to three days. Provides that the state board of education cannot waive the provisions concerning suspension and expulsion of young students for school districts or charter schools.

HI S 1220 (Companion: HI H 994)—Prohibits the suspension and expulsion of children participating in the executive office on early learning public prekindergarten program, except in limited circumstances.

NE L 165—Creates The Too Young to Suspend Act. Prohibits early childhood education and kindergarten students from being suspended or expelled from school except in limited circumstances.

NY S 767 (Same as: NY A 1981)—Requires every school district to promote safe and secure environments and implement restorative practices designed to promote social and emotional learning. Prohibits the suspension of students in kindergarten through third grade, except in cases of serious physical injury.

VA H 296—Prohibits students in preschool through third grade from being suspended or expelled from school.

Funding and Resources

Under ESSA, states can build better systems for tracking how funds are distributed to students to evaluate and address inequities. By looking more closely at how funding effects schools and students, states can better determine which students need more resources and support. To support early learning and help close gaps, states might consider using Title I funds for early childhood programming in a number of new ways now permitted under ESSA, such as increasing access and improving transitions to kindergarten. Additionally, states might apply for Preschool Development Grants to support needs assessments, increase parental access and choice, and to expand and improve quality early learning programs, allowed under Title IX.

Expanding Access

AZ H 2518—Appropriates $500,000 to administer an online early learning program to improve a child's transition into elementary education.

CA A 197—Requires that, in the 2021‑22 school year, school districts offering kindergarten will implement a full‑day kindergarten program, imposing a state‑mandated local program. Requires the state to reimburse local agencies and school districts for certain costs mandated by the state.

(2017) DC B 26—Amends the Pre‑K Enhancement and Expansion Amendment Act of 2008 to include pre‑K age students identified as at‑risk in the allocation of funding that each provider receives.

HI H 243—Requires the state department of education to contact with a consulting firm that specializes in school finance so as to evaluate the impact of school funding on access to public preschool and afterschool programs, among other measurements.

HI H 317—Creates pilot program to offer low‑cost or no‑cost daycare to help prepare children for preschool and kindergarten.

HI S 736 (Companion: HI H 310)—Establishes an income tax credit for employers who create on site early childhood facilities, establishes and appropriates funds for one full time employee on site early childhood facility coordinator position, applies to taxable years beginning after December 31, 2019.

IA H 273 (Similar: IA H 184, IA H 242)—Expands eligibility for the statewide preschool program.

IN S 338—Amends requirements for eligibility for the prekindergarten pilot program.

KY H 113—Requires each school district to provide full‑day preschool. Requires that all four‑year‑olds in the district be eligible.

MN H 760 (Companion: MN S 1619)—Expands the requirements for an early learning scholarship to include five year olds.

MS H 201Establishes a program called "A Better Chance" for the purpose of providing online prekindergarten instruction throughout the state.

MS H 314— Establishes a universal prekindergarten program for the state of Mississippi.

OR H 2025—Alters the preschool program administered by the Early Learning Division and establishes the program as the Preschool Promise Program.

TX S 36 (Identical: TX H 189)—Relates to providing free full‑day prekindergarten for four‑year‑olds and certain three‑year‑olds.

WA H 1574 (Companion: WA S 5820)— Designates homeless children as a vulnerable population to allow eligibility for early learning programs and twelve-month authorizations for working connections child care subsidies for homeless children.

Improving Early Learning Programs

IL H 817—Establishes an Office of Computer Science Education to ensure that every student in kindergarten through 12 is afforded a world‑class computer science education.

OR H 2897—Creates the Early Childhood Equity Fund to provide grants to culturally-specific early learning and early childhood and parent support programs.

OR S 217—Requires the state department of education to award grants to school districts with a focus on reducing disparities for students of color, students with disabilities, students who are English language learners, rural students, students from tribal communities and low‑income students. Authorizes grants to be used for supplemental early childhood support, including programs that address early literacy and transitions from prekindergarten to kindergarten, and practices, supports, and interventions to improve student outcomes by third grade.

Teaching and Learning

Under ESSA, states are required to look closely at how highly effective teachers are distributed among student groups and redefine how to evaluate teachers. To support early learning and help close gaps, states might consider creating new tools to evaluate the effectiveness of Pre-K through third grade teachers, and provide professional development for increasing their effectiveness. Additionally, states could consider including early childhood education and school readiness as priorities in SEA professional development plans. ESSA specifically allows support for state efforts to address transitions and school readiness. 

IL H 35—Expands the definition of "eligible school" in the Grow Your Own Teacher Education Act to include early childhood programs.

MN S 1012 (Companion: MN H 824)—Provides scholarships to American Indian peoples who are progressing toward obtaining an early childhood family education or prekindergarten licensure. The Aspiring Minnesota Teachers of Color Scholarship Program: Requires candidates to be completing a two‑year program designed to prepare early childhood educators.

NM H 5—Repeals the K‑3 Plus Program and makes the K‑5 Plus program ongoing. Increases base teacher salary to $40,000 from $36,000, with teachers in the K‑5 Plus Program receiving $45,600.

OR H 2248—Requires the state department of education to provide grants to enable school districts to provide at least one teacher for every 15 kindergarten students.

SC S 419 (Companion: SC H 3759)— Amends the Read to Succeed Initiative to include references to a Response to Intervention framework and to require scientifically based reading practices and evidence‑based interventions. Amends third grade retention exemptions and requirements for reading coaches. Requires that students enrolled in prekindergarten through grade three be screened for reading proficiency and provided evidence‑based interventions to ensure that students are on track to be reading on grade level by the end of the third grade. Requires that the Commission on Higher Education conduct an analysis to determine the effectiveness of each teacher education program in preparing teachers to diagnose a child's reading problems and provide small group and individual student interventions that are scientifically based and evidence‑based.

TN S 327 (Companion: TN H 619)— Requires that the state department of education create and administer a coaching network for prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers throughout the state.

VT S 90 (Similar: VT H 194)—Appropriates $2 million to the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation to provide student loan repayments to early learning repayments for early learning professionals who meet certain requirements. Expands the recipients of an early childhood scholarship to include those pursuing early childhood education or early childhood special education. Establishes a tax credit for early learning professionals. Creates the Early Care and Learning Fund.

Wraparound Services

Under ESSA, states can reimagine how to best support students during early childhood, and find new ways to get students the resources they need. To support early learning and help close gaps, states might use new provisions in Title II to apply for Literacy Education for All or Results for the Nation (LEARN) grants, which include a 15 percent set aside for evidence-based birth-kindergarten literacy activities. Title IV allows states to support early childhood through 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Promise Neighborhoods, full-service community schools and Ready to Learn programming, all of which focus on community and family engagement.

Family Engagement

MO H 58Establishes the Missouri Parent/Teacher Involvement Act.

NJ S 371Establishes two‑generational school readiness and workforce development pilot program for certain low‑income households.

Supportive Services

CO H 1017—The Colorado K‑5 Social and Emotional Health Act‑‑Creates a pilot program that places school social workers in each grade K‑5.

ME H 369Creates a task force to study and plan for the implementation of early childhood special education services.

NM H 134Expands the Community Schools Act to include early childhood programs and voluntary public pre‑kindergarten. Requires that applicants for grants for community school initiatives include a baseline analysis of needs at the community school that include enrollment and retention rates for ELLs, analyses of suspension and expulsion data, evaluation for the need and availability of wraparound services and a baseline analysis of needs in the community for high‑quality, full‑day child care and early childhood education programs.

Supporting English Learners

Under ESSA, states are required to track EL performance as part of Title I, moved from Title III and representing a significant shift from No Child Left Behind. To receive Title I funding, states must include the English language proficiency of ELs in grades three and above on state accountability frameworks. Additionally, the ESSA requires states to standardize their processes for identification and reclassification (exiting from language support programs) of ELs. Monitoring ELs (tracking their achievement after reclassification) has increased from two to four years, providing a longer safeguard for these students to help prevent their achievement in English from regressing. States can also now apply (in partnership with higher education institutions and community organizations) for National Professional Development Project grants that can support EL professional development in Pre-K-3 grades.

IA H 36—Creates a world language education pilot program aimed at enhancing foreign language education in Iowa elementary schools. Provides that research based foreign language instruction be provided.

OR H 2440—Requires that the state department of education develop and implement a statewide education plan for students in early childhood through post‑secondary education who are Latino or Hispanic and have experienced disproportionate educational results. Directs the state department of education to form an advisory group to advise on the development and implementation of the plan, grant awards, and rulemaking.

WA S 5607 (Companion: WA H 1322)—Requires the state department of education to develop and administer the early learning dual language grant program to grow capacity for high quality dual language learning in child care and early childhood education.

Advisory Group

To guide and lead NCSL’s work on educational opportunity and achievement gaps in preschool through third grade, NCSL convened a bipartisan advisory group of state legislators to provide expertise, guidance and leadership on this topic. Advisory group members are listed below. A detailed photo roster is coming soon.

Representative Raumesh Akbari (D-Tennessee)

Representative John Carney (R-Kentucky)

Representative Byron Donalds (R-Florida)

Senator Joyce Elliott (D-Arkansas)

Representative Sondra Erickson (R-Minnesota)

Representative Jerry Govan (D-South Carolina)

Representative Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Washington)

Senator Ann Millner (R-Utah)

Senator Mimi Stewart (D-New Mexico)

Representative Curtis Trent (R-Missouri)

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

Past and Upcoming Meetings and Webinars

  • Closing Opportunity Gaps Under ESSA – Seattle, WA November 1-3: Twenty-three legislators and two legislative staff, representing 19 states and 20 legislative chambers, from across all five regions of the United States, attended the seminar. More than half of the meeting participants currently hold leadership positions within their legislatures or in national legislative caucuses. These participants dialogued with 12 national policy experts, discussing the economic imperative of opportunity gaps, political strategy, the importance of early learning, equity and finance data, wrap-around approaches, teaching, and supporting English Language Learners. Participants learned about the role that each of these important topics play in shaping outcomes for students, dove into their own state data, and left each session with ideas, questions and next steps they took back to their home states. This led to provocative discussion of the deeply-embedded structures, systems and policies that leads to disparate outcomes for students, conversations never before had in an NCSL setting. Materials for the meeting can be found via this dropbox account.
  • Closing Opportunity Gaps Under ESSA-Meeting Blog (December 2017)
  • Early Care and Education 2017 Webinar Series: NCSL’s Early Care and Education project covers a range of policy topics from child care, pre-kindergarten, infant and early childhood home visiting, to financing strategies and more.
  • Preschool Effects: Consensus Research: With the generous support of the Heising-Simons Foundation, this hour-long webinar features an overview of the new Brookings Institution policy brief developed by several leading early childhood education researchers to reach consensus on what the preschool effects literature does and does not say. Topics such as fadeout, long-term achievement and return on investment are discussed, including an audience question-and-answer session.

Other Resources

  • Advancing Equity through ESSA: Strategies for State Leaders: This framework from CCSSO and the Aspen Institute examines eight equity priorities that states already are pursuing and identifies multiple provisions in ESSA that states can use to address each priority.
  • Equity and ESSA: Leveraging Educational Opportunity Through the Every Student Succeeds Act: This report by the Learning Policy Institute is intended for use by policymakers, educators, researchers, and advocates to look at provisions in ESSA that can be used to advance equity and excellence for students of color, low-income students, English learners, students with disabilities, and those who are homeless or in foster care.
  • National Center on Education Statistics – Achievement Gaps: This online resource from NCES explores the achievement gaps between Black and white, and Hispanic and white students using NAEP data to illuminate patterns and changes in these gaps over time, and identify factors that might underlie such gaps. 
  • How Much Can High-Quality Universal Pre-K Reduce Achievement Gaps?: This report from the Center for American Progress and the National Institute for Early Education Research considers how a universal publicly-funded pre-kindergarten program in the United States could decrease both disparities in access to early learning and achievement gaps at kindergarten entry.
  • The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations: This research by Dr. Sean Reardon examines the relationship between income and academic achievement, finding that there is a gap between high- and low-income students, that it has widened significantly over the last few decades, and that “the income achievement gap is large when children enter kindergarten and does not appear to grow (or narrow) appreciably as children progress through school,” among other important findings.
  • Economic Gains for U.S. States From Education Reform: In this report, using newly-developed research methods, economist Dr. Eric Hanushek finds that “educational achievement strongly predicts economic growth across the U.S. states over the past four decades.” Learn the statistics about your state.