Heading into the 2021 legislative session, state legislators faced a long list of pandemic-related challenges to address. Ranking high on the list for many states were the significant disruptions to child care, including widespread facility closures, job losses and hiring challenges for child care professionals. These issues continue to directly impact child care operations, parents’ ability to work and states’ economic recovery. Researchers note that the ongoing shortages in care are associated with emotional distress in young children, parents and the child care workforce.
In response to these crises, the federal government approved a historic $50 billion in new funding for early care and education through multiple relief packages, providing state policymakers an extraordinary opportunity to stabilize and rebuild early childhood systems and programs. By the time most states had gaveled out for the last time in 2021, state lawmakers had enacted twice as many early care and education bills than NCSL tracks in a typical year. Out of approximately 1,175 bills introduced, legislatures in 43 states enacted 208 bills related to early childhood.
In 2021, states legislatures focused on child care access and quality, the early care and education workforce, prekindergarten and school readiness. Legislatures also specifically focused attention on the topics of equity, early childhood governance and paid family leave. This report provides an overview of significant enacted legislation in each state. It does not represent a comprehensive list of enacted bills and does not include all early care and education legislative enactments. This report does not contain bills with technical changes or all state budget appropriations bills. For a full list of all bills introduced and enacted during 2021, visit NCSL’s Early Care and Education Database.
Note: The total number of enacted bills does not add up to what is listed here due to bills that address multiple topics.
Child care subsidy and quality
Child care regulations, standards, background checks,health and safety, penalties and subsidies
Early childhood financing
Pay-for-success initiatives, tax credits and funding mechanisms
Early childhood governance
Advisory councils, boards, study committees and system reform
Prenatal, infants and toddlers
Prenatal screening, maternal health, safety, early interventions, child well-being and paid parental leave
Prekindergarten and school readiness
Early childhood education programs, school readiness,preschool and assessments
Early care and education workforce
Teacher training requirements, certification, professional development and workforce matters
Equity in early childhood
Promoting racial equity
Home visiting programs, and services and parent education involvement
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), two-generation strategies, brain development, trauma-informed care, etc.
Child Care Access and Quality
In response to the unprecedented challenges to child care and the influx of federal funds, legislatures enacted more child care legislation in 2021 than the two previous years combined, a total of 92 bills enacted in 30 states. Legislatures passed initiatives to stabilize and expand access to care through changes to licensing and eligibility for child care subsidies, as well as long-term solutions to rebuild and sustain the child care field.
At least 13 state legislatures modified child care licensing requirements. Legislation in Montana (S 142) and Iowa (H 260) increased provider-child ratios to allow providers to care for more children. Lawmakers in Indiana (H 1101) and North Carolina (S 570) approved measures to allow for temporary flexibility in meeting licensing requirements during the declared emergency. In alignment with federal guidance on the use of COVID relief funding, state legislators amended subsidy eligibility criteria (Utah H 277 and Virginia H 2206) and allowed for enrollment-based payments to subsidy providers (Tennessee S 1105).
On top of addressing the supply of care, legislators also focused on improving quality. At least five states—California, Nebraska, Maine, Oregon and Tennessee—legislated changes or created new initiatives related to their quality rating improvement systems, which are used in most states to assess and raise quality within early care and education settings. Texas (S 1555) implemented graduated reimbursement rates to incentivize lower adult-child ratios, considered a marker of quality by researchers, for providers serving families with subsidies.
States also focused on long-term solutions to rebuilding child care by addressing a persistent challenge to the field: funding. Both Vermont (H 117) and Tennessee (S 1104) enacted legislation related to alternative methods to determine reimbursement rates for child care providers offering subsidized care. Both states will consider or allow for other methodologies through “cost of care” or “cost of quality” studies instead of relying on market rate surveys, which some argue do not adequately cover providers’ costs.
Early Care and Education Workforce
Legislatures in 21 states passed 31 bills to provide targeted support to the early care and education workforce. Much of the enacted legislation was focused on financial relief to child care providers, increased compensation and recruitment of new early childhood professionals.
In most states, federal relief dollars to child care providers were distributed by states’ lead child care agencies. In Ohio (S 109) and Colorado (S 236), legislatures played a role in prioritizing federal relief funds through the creation of grant programs for qualifying child care professionals and to recruit new professionals to the field. Maryland prioritized home-based, or family child care, with legislation (H 944) to offer financial incentives and startup funds to new and registered family child care providers, as well as to help existing providers increase quality.
Legislators in several states enacted laws that will push their states to identify ways to increase compensation for child care providers. Delaware lawmakers passed SCR 36, creating a state target compensation scale and professional career pathway for early childhood educators. New Mexico created a task force (HM 27) to develop a plan and identify funding to help child care providers comply with statewide minimum wage increases. Both Connecticut (H 6558) and Texas (H 619) created task forces to draft recommendations for child care workforce issues, including compensation. Colorado (S 236) allocated funds to increase the number of qualified multilingual and culturally competent early childhood educators and created a grant program to increase early childhood educator salaries. Washington passed the comprehensive Fair Start for Kids Act (S5237) which increases reimbursement rates to providers and helps cover the cost of health insurance for employees in licensed child care facilities.
Prekindergarten and School Readiness
States also prioritized prekindergarten and school readiness initiatives through legislative action. Twenty-one states enacted 39 bills, most of which established, expanded or otherwise supported prekindergarten programs. Idaho (S 1075) established a “jump start” program for prekindergarten-aged children in need of additional school readiness skill development. The bill also includes parent training. Oregon (H 2054) passed legislation providing grants to fund kindergarten readiness, to engage parents in their children’s healthy development and to provide resources for priority populations and geographic areas. California (AB 167) allocated funds to expand access to prekindergarten programming and establish or strengthen partnerships with other providers to ensure that 4-year-old children and their families have access to high-quality prekindergarten options. North Dakota (H 1466) allocated funding for prekindergarten programming and also assigned each program a support coach.
Other Notable Legislative Trends (Equity, Governance and Paid Family Leave)
NCSL also tracked bills addressing equity, governance and paid family leave—all issues gaining attention in legislatures. Many of the following examples overlap with other categories already mentioned but are highlighted here because of their growing significance in state legislatures.
This year, states enacted a handful of bills to promote racial equity in early childhood programs. For example, Minnesota’s H 2128 provides grants to establish, sustain or expand voluntary home visiting programs that address health equity and utilize community-driven health strategies. Other states, including Texas (H 619), established task forces or study groups to examine compensation data for child care workers that is disaggregated by race and ethnicity. Connecticut (H 6558) addressed inequity in employment opportunities and compensation and encouraged equity-based practices in professional development for early childhood professionals. A new Illinois task force (HR 181) will provide recommendations for collecting and reporting data on progress toward ensuring prekindergarten programs and care providers implement restorative, anti-racist and trauma-responsive strategies and practices. In New Jersey, AB 4004, introduced in 2020 and enacted in 2021, establishes a task force that will examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to child care services in the state's minority and vulnerable communities.
Oregon (H 2166) established the Early Childhood Suspension and Expulsion Prevention Program to incorporate racial equity into early childhood care and education programs and to establish knowledge, skills and competency requirements for technical assistance specialists and mental health consultants with a focus on racial equity.
The infrastructure and administration of programs serving young children and families continues to be a topic of discussion in statehouses. In 2021, at least 22 states enacted 52 bills to establish, extend or rename task forces, commissions or committees. While one state enacted legislation to create a new department to align the governance of early childhood programs and services, other states introduced and discussed a similar approach. Notably, Colorado (H 1304) joined the ranks of six other states—Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington—in creating a cabinet level Department of Early Childhood. The new department will create and oversee a unified early childhood system and oversee all early care and education programs.
State officials also took up consolidation and coordination of fragmented agencies or programs. With an executive order, Missouri (EO 21-02) established the Office of Childhood within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The new office will administer an array of programs previously housed within different agencies and is charged with expanding and improving high-quality early learning opportunities.
Legislators also enacted commissions to study, and in some cases, make recommendations on how to expand access to quality prekindergarten in Alabama (HJR 176), improve reading proficiency in Louisiana (HR 119) and reduce and prevent the use of suspension and expulsion in Oregon (S 236).
Paid Family Leave
NCSL began tracking paid leave—with an eye toward parental leave policies—in 2021. Like previous years, approximately half of the states introduced bills that if enacted would have created a paid leave employee benefit program. Some bills, such as Georgia’s H 146, have a narrower focus limiting who qualifies, how long paid leave can be taken and what life events make an employee eligible to receive the benefit. Georgia legislators enacted a paid parental leave program for state workers, teachers and university employees after the birth, adoption or foster placement of a minor child. To qualify, employees must have worked a minimum of 700 hours in a six-month period to access three weeks of paid parental leave during a rolling 12-month period.
Other examples include Hawaii’s HR 86, which creates a task force to develop a paid family leave pilot program and Maine’s LD 1559, which established a commission to develop a paid family and medical leave benefits program. In Oregon (H 3398), will delay implementation of the state’s paid family and medical leave program enacted in 2019. Under the new law, employers will begin making contributions to the state's paid family and medical leave insurance on Jan. 1, 2023, a full year later than originally scheduled. Employees can begin collecting benefits on Sept. 1, 2023, eight months after the initial timeline. Rhode Island’s paid leave program, first enacted in 2013, provides employees with four weeks of leave. This year, with H 6090, legislators increased the benefit amount to five weeks beginning in January 2022 and then to six weeks in January 2023.
Closing and Additional Resources
This summary of new state laws illuminates state policymakers’ prioritization of child development, beginning in the prenatal period and continuing through prekindergarten and beyond. While states were busy legislating on health and safety during the pandemic, most legislatures also continued to address the well-being of young children and their families and the quality and viability of early care and education programs and professionals. Because these policies and programs are important for the health and economic security of families and the strength of local, state and national economies, legislatures’ ongoing efforts to support early care and education are as important as ever.
Beyond the scope of early care and education, young children’s families and broader communities also influence their development. Please visit the following NCSL legislative databases for additional bill tracking information:
This report was prepared using StateNet, a legislative tracking database, to perform bill searches and analysis. Summaries provided in this document and in the 50-state, online Early Care and Education bill tracking searchable database are provided by StateNet and updated and revised by NCSL.