Early Childhood Policy Overview


Young boy and girl reading togetherBolstered by the ever-growing field of neuroscience, child development and evaluation research, state lawmakers have been at the forefront of expanding investments in programs that support the healthy development and school readiness skills of children and support for their parents to be the first and best teachers of their children. There also has been considerable economic research on the positive returns on investing in early childhood development programs.

Scientists have discovered that the most rapid period of brain development occurs in the first few years of life. During this time the basic architecture of the brain is being constructed through an ongoing process that begins at birth and continues into adulthood.

This emerging science shows how critical the early years are for brain development and with future success. The quality of early experiences can set the stage for either a strong foundation of brain architecture or a weak one. Early ongoing adversity—poverty, abuse, familial substance abuse/mental health issues—can derail the healthy development of a child’s brain leading to long-term effects in academic, social and workforce abilities. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University provides the latest information and research on science of brain development.

State policymakers understand and acknowledge this sensitive period of the early years and the rapid growth in brain development that occurs and have developed legislation that supports early childhood policies and programs.

Read Brain Matters, a January 2014 State Legislatures magazine article by NCSL staff, that talks about advances in understanding how the young brain develops and what this means for later growth and development.

The resources found on this page are designed to help legislators learn about and understand key early childhood policy and program topics such as: child care subsidies, state prekindergarten programs, state home visiting programs, financing strategies and governance structures to better coordinate programs that serve young children (e.g. Office of Early Childhood or Department of Early Learning). Within these topics, lawmakers look to:

  • Improve the quality, affordability and access to programs.
  • Develop early childhood data strategies to strengthen program quality, effectiveness and accountability.
  • Increase the education level and improve the compensation of the early childhood workforce.
  • Support parent engagement within programs.
  • Understand the needs of dual language learners.
  • Create tax incentives the target families, early childhood workforce and businesses.
  • Establish public-private partnerships.

For up-to-date legislative information, please visit NCSL’s legislative early care and education database 2008-2018 and 2019.

Child Care Subsidy and Quality

Young boy playing with lettered wooden blocks For almost two decades state child care subsidy programs have been both a support for low-income working families to assist with the high cost of child care and an opportunity to provide quality environments that support optimal early development and learning, as well as promote school readiness. The cost of care can be a significant burden to working families with costs often exceeding that of college tuition. Research indicates the quality of care, including the capacity of caregivers, can affect, for better or worse, child development and provides an important source of enrichment especially for very vulnerable children.

Child care subsidy programs are funded through a mix of federal and state dollars. The largest federal funding source that supports state child care assistance programs is the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). According to the federal government, half a million child care providers serve close to 1.5 million low-income children through this federal funding source. In 2014 Congress reauthorized the CCDBG, which made significant changes to existing law in the areas of four broad categories: health and safety, parent and provider education and information, eligibility and access policies and quality improvement. March 2018 Congress approved a $2.37 billion increase in the program.

Policy considerations:  

  • Eligibility: What level of eligibility best meets the needs of the low-income population in your state?
  • Reimbursement to providers: At what rate will you reimburse providers so that they are providing the kind of program you expect? Does your state quality improvement system (QRIS) provide tiered reimbursement to incentivize quality?
  • Program quality and standards: Does your state have continuous QRIS in place? What level of quality do you want from child care programs that serve the most vulnerable children?
  • Workforce: How will the state support the teachers in child care to make sure these programs are effective for getting children off to a good start? Are you providing incentives for improvement in education levels?
  • Effectiveness: Are programs achieving the desired outcomes?

Key resources:


Prekindergarten, School Readiness and Early Literacy

Group of young children laying on their back and smiling at the cameraState legislatures recognize the important role pre-K programs play in promoting school readiness, especially for children who experience numerous risk factors. State legislatures have created and funded new programs, improved teacher qualifications and enhanced school readiness assessments and program quality standards. As of 2015, 42 states and the District of Columbia currently invest a total of $7 billion in state funding for pre-K programs. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia utilize their school finance formula to fund pre-K. In addition, some state legislatures have recently enacted laws to boost early childhood literacy development and provide early support for reading success in the early elementary grades including supports for dual language learners.

Two federal initiatives, President Obama’s Preschool Development Grants (2014) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Preschool Development Grants (2016) provide preschool development grants to states to expand and improve state prekindergarten programs. As states implement these grants it will be informative to learn how states use the funds. ESSA includes additional opportunities to support early childhood education. Read more about ESSA and early childhood. 

Policy considerations for state prekindergarten program:

  • School-based vs. community-based programs.
  • Teacher qualifications and program quality.
  • Full-day vs. half-day.
  • Universal vs. targeted.

Key resources:


Home Visiting

Mother and baby visiting with a nurse home visitorHome visiting is a voluntary, home-based prevention strategy used to support pregnant mothers and new parents to promote infant and child health, foster healthy child development, improve school readiness and family self-sufficiency. Services are most often delivered by trained nurses, social workers or child development specialists.

Evidence-based home visiting evaluation findings show positive outcomes for children and families while creating long-term savings for states. The return on investment for every dollar spent on these efforts ranges from $1.75 to $5.70. State lawmakers play an important role in establishing effective home visiting policies in their states. They can determine how different sources of funding can be leveraged to sustain and improve the quality of states’ existing home visiting systems.

Since 2010 the federal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) grant, a provision within the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, has provided states with substantial resources for home visiting. Initially the program provided $1.5 billion over five years (FYS 2010-2014) and has since received an extension at current funding levels through 2017. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-123) included new MIECHV funding. MIECHV was reauthorized for five years at $400 million and includes a new financing model for states. The new model authorizes states to use up to 25 percent of their grant funds to enter into public-private partnerships called pay-for-success agreements. This financing model requires states to pay only if the private partner delivers improved outcomes. The bill also requires improved state-federal data exchange standards and statewide needs assessments.

Policy considerations:

  • Evidence-based: Is your state implementing evidence-based or research informed programs?
  • Target population: Are programs reaching the families that could benefit most from participation?
  • Coordination: If your state has more than one program, do they coordinate with one another to optimize funding and results? Are home visiting programs part of your state early childhood systems planning?

Key resources:


Governance Structures and Systems

Teacher sitting with students writingState early childhood programs are more often than not overseen by various levels of government and housed in different agencies, creating a fragmented service delivery model. To decrease fragmentation and improve the delivery and accountability of programs some states have developed governance structures to better coordinate programs that serve young children. This can include coordination of programs (i.e., memorandum of understanding-MOUs), consolidation of programs (i.e., office of child development) or the creation of a new government structure (i.e., department of early learning).

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 Head Start Reauthorization Act, states were encouraged to develop early childhood advisory councils, many of which still exist today. To date, at least, 25 states have early childhood/early learning councils in statute. Legislators also create short- and long-term task forces as a means to tackle a particular early childhood issue such as improving school readiness or examining child fatalities in child care centers.

Policy considerations:

  • Is the state maximizing all potential funding sources for early care and education?
  • Are there common procedures or guidelines to minimize administrative burden and cost?
  • Are high quality standards required across various programs such as prekindergarten and child care?
  • Do early learning guidelines, curriculum and instruction align with K-12?

Key resources:


Early Childhood Data Systems

Students sitting at desks facing a teacher at the front of the roomData are a vital resource in state efforts to reduce the school readiness gap and bolster educational achievement for all children. States often struggle, however, to obtain data across programs that will enable them to answer even basic questions about their state’s public early care and education system or children’s early learning experiences. In an effort to better inform policy and funding decisions, many states have been active in developing state coordinated data systems to better understand program effectiveness, program quality including data on the early childhood workforce, and whether determined child outcomes are achieved.

At least 22 states have introduced or enacted legislation to address early childhood data collection and use. Many states used their Race to the Top funds, which offered incentives for the use and development of education data systems, to advance this work even further.

As states consider the development of a coordinated data system some questions to consider are:

  • Who is being served by which program?
  • Are young children being prepared to enter kindergarten?
  • Do young children have access to “high-quality” early childhood programs?
  • How qualified is the early childhood workforce and what professional development training is needed?
  • Is the quality of programs improving over time?
  • What are some elements of a “high-quality” early childhood program?

Key resources:


Financing Strategies

Young children looking working at a computerState legislators make fiscal decisions to fund early care and education services, including child care, prekindergarten, home visiting and other related programs through the use of federal, state and local funding sources. Some states have utilized public and private partnerships in early childhood to promote better outcomes for young children. Others have created tax credits. States can provide tax credits as incentives for parents who use early care and education programs, for providers as a way to increase program quality and for business to encourage support of employees’ child care needs. In 2007 Louisiana passed legislation, School Readiness Tax Credits, which included a unique package of tax credits, that targeted families, early education providers, and businesses to offset costs and improve quality.

Another strategy lawmakers are considering to fund early childhood and other social programs are Social Impact Bonds (SIBs), a type of pay-for-success (PFS) funding agreement. In essence, SIBs are a private financing mechanism that works by allowing private entities to provide upfront capital that government can repay later when agreed upon outcomes are met. When implemented correctly, SIBs have the potential to save government money and strengthen program accountability. Social Impact Bonds are gaining in popularity across a handful of states to improve outcomes for young children and their families.
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. Maine, in 2015, passed a bill that requires a study of the use of social impact bonds to fund extended learning programs and prekindergarten programs. Check out the early care and education database to see all states that have introduced innovative financing legislation.

Key resources:


Other Emerging Issues in Early Care and Education

Dual Language Learners (DLLs)

The demographics of the U.S. are undergoing a dramatic shift related to race and ethnicity. This shift is being experienced across the age spectrum but specifically within the population ages 18 and under with an increasing number of young children considered Dual Language Learners (DLL)—children who are acquiring two or more languages simultaneously and learning a second language while continuing to develop their first language.

Many DLL children arrive to school with limited English proficiency placing new challenges to our existing education systems, including child care and pre-K. Currently, 15 states require public preschool programs to screen DLL students. Research indicates that DLL students often have lower levels of academic achievement than non-DLLs and experience a higher rate of school dropout. The good news is that DLL children who are proficient in English by the end of kindergarten do better on academic outcomes over time.

Key resources:

Family Supports and Parent Engagement

Parent engagement generally describes parents’ efforts to promote their children’s healthy development and learning through activities that can be encouraged by educators in child care, preschool and school settings. Family involvement is shown to promote school readiness, social-emotional growth and academic success. State lawmakers, along with education providers, struggle with the policy approaches on how to engage parents in a meaningful way in their child’s educational experience.

A recent strategy, often referred to as a “two-generation approach,” is drawing attention for the potential to impact and support children and parents together. A two generation approach includes components of early childhood education, job training/post-secondary education, and wrap-around family support services. Connecticut and Utah are two states that enacted legislation to develop a two-generation strategy for improving service delivery to families and ultimately improving outcomes. Connecticut is implementing two-gen pilot projects in several communities. The pilot projects put the focus on serving the family as a whole and include access to high- quality early learning 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 that includes development of evidence-based interventions and cross-agency coordination and alignment of programs and services to families.   

Key resources:

Social-Emotional Development and Infant & Toddler Mental Health

Social and emotional skills prepare children for future academic success. There is growing recognition from policymakers that acquiring these skills is just as important, if not more so, than cognitive skills. Social-emotional skills enable children to learn, make friends, express thoughts and feelings, cope with frustration and delay gratification. Opportunities exist for state lawmakers to consider policies that support healthy social-emotional development such as integrating social and emotional development into existing services, providing mental health consultation to early childhood programs to address challenging behaviors, and expanding developmental screenings for early identification of potential issues. The lack of social and emotional skills in children can lead to many challenges in the classroom and beyond. Currently, many children are arriving at school with limited social-emotional skills leading to an increase in suspension and expulsion of children from preschool programs. 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 development and learning of young children.

Key resources:


Additional NCSL Early Care and Education Publications and Resources

Additional Resources