Early Childhood Policy


Teacher with young children


The first few years of life are critical. During this period of rapid brain development, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. What happens in the early years can set infants and toddlers on the path for later success including better health, higher levels of educational achievement and greater financial well-being as adults.

State legislatures play a significant role in setting priorities and expectations for state agencies, allocating funding and overseeing state-administered early care and education programs and services. This page summarizes many of the most pressing early care and education policy topics.

In addition, NCSL tracks legislative activity, from introduction through enactment, in publicly available databases. Find legislation from 2008-2018 and 2019-present in the following areas:

  • Child care subsidy and quality
  • Early childhood financing
  • Early childhood governance
  • Equity in Early Childhood 
  • Home visiting
  • Prekindergarten and school readiness
  • Prenatal, infants and toddlers
  • Teachers and workforce

NCSL's 2021 summary of early care and education legislation provides an overview of significant legislative enactments.  

NCSL State Policy 101 | Setting the Stage Understanding Early Childhood Policy.

Child Care and the Early Care and Education Workforce 

High-quality child care provides significant benefits for children, parents, employers, and state and national economies. For working parents, access to high-quality child care can lead to greater productivity, job growth and increased earnings. Employers realize higher outputs and revenues while states benefit from higher tax revenue and economic growth. For the approximately 12 million children under age 6 who are cared for by someone other than a family member, high-quality early care and education can positively affect their social, emotional and cognitive development in ways that have lifelong implications, including readiness for and achievement in school.

In many ways, the current child care system is failing both families and child care professionals. The supply of child care has been on the decline in most states for years, disproportionately affecting certain families, including those who work nontraditional hours; live in rural communities; have an infant or toddler, or child with special needs; or are immigrants. Furthermore, the average cost of care across all states exceeds the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ measure of “affordable child care,” which is defined as 7% of household income.

The child care marketplace is economically unsustainable. Generally speaking, what parents pay for child care barely covers providers’ business expenses and labor costs necessary to meet recommended adult-child ratios. Consequently, the early care and education workforce typically earns extremely low wages and experiences high turnover.

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified many of these issues and presented an opportunity for states to reimagine a system of care that better meets the needs of families and early care and education professionals. Legislators are attempting to address access, affordability and quality in a variety of ways, including utilizing COVID-19 relief funds through the Child Care and Development Block Grant. The block grant is the largest federal child care funding stream. It is typically used to provide child care subsidies to low-income parents, to serve more families and to provide direct financial support to the early care and education workforce.

Key Resources:

Early Childhood Financing

Early childhood programs are funded through a patchwork of local, state and federal funds. State legislators make financial decisions related to child care, prekindergarten, home visiting and other related programs. The underlying financial challenge is that most parents cannot afford to pay more for early care and education and providers cannot afford to earn less.

Many states provide tax credits for parents to offset the cost of early care and education programs, tax credits for child care providers to incentivize program quality measures and increase compensation and business tax credits to help meet employees’ child care needs. 

In 2007 Louisiana passed a package of tax credits known as the School Readiness Tax Credits to increase the availability of high-quality early care and education across the state. The tax credits targeted families, early education providers and businesses to offset costs and improve quality. In 2016 Nebraska senators passed legislation giving tax credits to child care programs and their early childhood staff members beginning with tax year 2017.

Some state lawmakers are considering social impact bonds, a type of pay-for-success funding agreement. In 2014, Utah lawmakers were the first to pass legislation allowing the state to enter into pay for success contracts to improve school readiness through funding for a high-quality preschool program. Other funding strategies at the state and local levels include tobacco, e-cigarette, cannabis and property taxes and lottery, gaming and sports-betting proceeds.

NCSL’s annual survey of state appropriations for early care and education programs provides an overview of states’ budget and appropriations.

Key Resources:

Early Childhood Systems (Governance and Data)

Early Childhood Governance

State early childhood programs are often administered through multiple levels of government and multiple state agencies, creating fragmented governance and service delivery models. To decrease fragmentation and improve the delivery and accountability of programs some states have developed more cohesive governance structures. Examples include coordination of programs e.g., memoranda of understanding), consolidation of programs (e.g., office of child development) or the creation of a new government structure (e.g., department of early learning). 

As of winter 2022, seven states have created dedicated early childhood agencies. 12 states plus the District of Columbia have consolidated agencies or programs into one entity that oversees multiple components. The remaining 31 states provide programs and services through decentralized systems.

Most states also have state early childhood advisory councils that focus on systems-building efforts and improved coordination and collaboration between early childhood programs. In 2007, as part of the federal Head Start Reauthorization Act, states were encouraged to develop early childhood advisory councils, many of which still exist today. State legislators also create short- and long-term task forces as a means to tackle particular early childhood issues, such as improving school readiness or examining child fatalities in child care centers.

Early Childhood Data

Data integration is the process of linking data from multiple sources to drive data-informed decision-making at the program and policy levels. Data is a vital resource in state efforts to reduce the school readiness gap and bolster educational achievement for all children. 

States often struggle to obtain data across programs. To better inform policy and funding decisions, many states are attempting to develop coordinated data systems to better understand program quality and effectiveness, workforce issues and more.

Approximately half of the states have introduced or enacted legislation to address early childhood data collection and use. Many states used federal dollars through their Race to the Top and Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five funds, which incentivized development and use of data systems. Recent research points to the benefits of having integrated data to better respond and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Key Resources: 

Parent Engagement and Support (Home Visiting and Paid Parental Leave) 

Home Visiting

A strong body of evidence shows the positive impacts of home visiting on children and their families, including improvements in maternal and child health, child development and parenting practices. Voluntary home visiting is a home-based prevention strategy used to support pregnant mothers and new parents and are most often delivered by trained nurses, social workers or child development specialists.

At least 18 evidence-based home visiting models are in use throughout the country. Models vary in outcome, duration and frequency of visits and intended target population. Some begin in pregnancy; others during the first year of a child’s life. Some last two years, while others last up to age 6 or the start of kindergarten. 

States rely on a mix of state and federal funding to support state-administered home visiting programs. The Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting grant is the primary source of federal funding for home visiting. It began in 2010 under the Affordable Care Act and was reauthorized in 2015 under the Medicare Access and the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act. In February 2018, it was reauthorized for another five years. In addition, states use general funds, tobacco settlement funds, tobacco taxes and philanthropic dollars to pay for home visiting.

Paid Parental Leave 

Employee leave benefits often fall into one of four categories—parental, family care, medical and sick—and each can be paid or unpaid. A growing body of research shows the positive outcomes for infants, toddlers and their families who have access to paid parental leave, more commonly referred to as maternity and paternity leave, or time away from employment to care for and bond with a new child at or around the time of childbirth or adopting or fostering a new child.

As of June 2022, 11 states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington—and the District of Columbia have paid family and medical leave in place legislatively or through a ballot initiative. A strong link exists between paid parental leave and positive child development. More specifically, paid time away from work allows for parent-child bonding, increased rate of breastfeeding, improved and timely health care and a decrease in child maltreatment to name a few. Each year, paid leave legislation is introduced in about half of state legislatures. 

Key Resources:

Prekindergarten, School Readiness and Early Literacy

A growing number of state legislators recognize the role prekindergarten programs play in promoting school readiness, especially for children who experience numerous risk factors. As of 2019, 44 states and the District of Columbia invest nearly $9 billion in state funding for prekindergarten programs. Ten states and the District of Columbia fund prekindergarten through their school finance formula. Recent trends in prekindergarten legislation include a focus on supporting early literacy, limiting or prohibiting suspensions and expulsions in prekindergarten classrooms, and expanding early learning opportunities more equitably. 

From 2019 to 2020, 52 states and territories received federal Preschool Development Birth through Five (PDG B-5) grants to fund comprehensive needs assessments of services and programs for children up to age 5. The grants encouraged states to focus on five major activities: aligning existing programs, maximizing parental choice, building on the success of existing programs, fostering partnerships among stakeholders and leveraging data for continuous improvement. Upon completing their needs assessments, 23 states were awarded three-year renewal grants to implement their strategic plans. 

Key Resources:

Social-Emotional Development and Infant & Toddler Mental Health

Social and emotional skills prepare children for success academically and for life in general. There is growing recognition from policymakers that acquiring these skills is just as important, if not more important, than cognitive skills. Social-emotional skills enable children to learn, make friends, express thoughts and feelings, cope with frustration and delay gratification.

Lack of social and emotional skills in children often leads to challenges at home and in the classroom. Many children are entering school with limited social-emotional skills, which has contributed to an increase in suspension and expulsion of children from preschool programs.

State policies can either support or hinder healthy social-emotional development. Child development experts recommend integrating social and emotional development into services families already use, providing mental health consultations through early childhood programs, and expanding developmental screenings for early identification of potential issues. 

Lawmakers in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. have enacted bills to prohibit suspension and expulsion of preschool children. Maine's legislature established an ad hoc committee to examine the social-emotional learning and development of young children.

Key resources:

Whole-Family Approach

Parents are a child’s first and often best teacher. Parent engagement generally describes parents’ efforts to promote their children’s healthy development and learning through activities that generally are supported and encouraged by educators in child care, preschool and school settings. Family involvement is shown to promote school readiness, social-emotional development and academic success. State lawmakers and education providers alike are grappling with how to engage parents in a meaningful way in their child’s educational experience.

An emerging strategy, often referred to as “whole-family,” “two-generation” or “multi-generation” approaches, is drawing attention for its potential to positively affect children and parents. A whole-family approach often includes early care and education programs; job training, post-secondary education and workforce supports for parents; and wrap-around family support services. Voluntary home visiting is frequently referred to as a two-generation approach because it simultaneously supports parents and their young children.

Connecticut and Utah have enacted legislation to develop two-generation strategies for improving service delivery to families and ultimately improving child and family outcomes. Connecticut is implementing pilot projects in several communities. The projects put the focus on serving the entire family and include access to high-quality early learning for children and pathways to education, work and training for parents. Utah’s legislature took a different approach. They first created an interagency commission to study intergenerational poverty and develop interventions to mitigate poverty. The commission’s work is focused on  developing evidence-based interventions and cross-agency coordination and alignment of programs and services.   

Key Resources:

Connect with NCSL

Sign up to receive NCSL’s monthly Children, Youth and Families Update. Each issue highlights the latest resources and learning opportunities related to child and family well-being. 

Connect with NCSL’s early care and education experts by emailing cyf-info@ncsl.org.