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Early Childhood: What’s Governance Got to Do With It?

States increasingly recognize the need for a more coordinated approach to nurturing their youngest residents.

By Allison May, Heather Hannah and Patrick Lyons  |  April 27, 2022

Long before becoming an uncle nine months ago, Georgia Rep. Houston Gaines knew how critically important early experiences and relationships were for growing strong and healthy kids.

“The early years are such an important time of development,” the Republican says. “This is why my colleagues in the Georgia Legislature and I continue to prioritize policies that support early childhood development, ranging from paid family leave to the executive-level Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.”

“My colleagues in the Georgia Legislature and I continue to prioritize policies that support early childhood development.”

—Georgia Rep. Houston Gaines

It’s been more than 20 years since the publication of the report “From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development” and a decade since NCSL launched its Early Childhood Fellows program. In that time, many state legislators have learned that a child’s first years are a time of significant development, and many have taken steps to improve the quality and availability of early childhood programs in their states.

Today, lawmakers across the country are debating legislative action related to the oversight and structure of early childhood programs. With multiple state agencies—health, education, human services—often providing programs for families, states are increasingly recognizing the need for a more coordinated approach.

Six States With Early Childhood Agencies Reporting to Governor

Six states—Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington—have established early childhood agencies with their directors in cabinet-level positions. In 2021, Colorado enacted HB 1304 to establish a unified early childhood system by creating the Department of Early Childhood. The new department, which is still in development, will house about 20 programs and oversee the launch of the state’s universal preschool program in July 2023.

Elevating early childhood programs to the state-agency level creates opportunities to serve children and families more effectively through an integrated, whole-family approach. The resulting enhancements in program delivery, data collection and data sharing can inform how young children and their families are supported and help to drive improvements.


Georgia’s history of prioritizing young learners dates to the early ’90s when voters passed a referendum to establish the Georgia Lottery for Education, creating a funding stream to implement and grow a prekindergarten program. To consolidate and better coordinate programs for young children, the General Assembly in 1996 created the Office of School Readiness, which in 2004 was merged, via SB 456, with other state agency units into the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. The department is responsible for licensing child care, administering the state’s prekindergarten program, coordinating child care subsidies for parents and implementing a quality rating and improvement system. The Georgia Children’s Cabinet is the advising entity charged with supporting a sustainable and comprehensive system of education and care to best serve children and families.

New Mexico

In 2019, the New Mexico Legislature enacted SB 22 to establish the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, a cabinet-level state agency. To better align and coordinate efforts, the legislation transferred to the department early childhood programs previously spread across multiple state agencies. The new law also expanded early prekindergarten and program eligibility. The department was launched in mid-2020.

What’s working well? “Collaboration!” New Mexico Rep. Joy Garratt (D) says. “The Early Childhood Education and Care Department secretary and the secretaries and staff of the Public Education and Higher Education departments are constantly collaborating on initiatives. For example, creating a well-prepared early education teaching workforce involves all three departments. They function as an effective team, not in silos, addressing how each department can work together to benefit the teaching workforce, comprehensive policies, children and, importantly, New Mexico families as a whole.”

In the department’s first year of operation, prekindergarten enrollment nearly doubled, home visitation services expanded and a cost-estimation study was conducted to better align child care subsidy payments with the actual cost of care. The department also provides professional development and technical assistance to improve program quality and child and family outcomes. “The department can truly focus on best practices prenatally through the start of school,” Garratt says.

Offices of Early Learning or Early Childhood More Common

Washington, D.C., and 13 states—Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont—have consolidated services for young children into a single office or division within an existing state agency, most often in the education or human services departments. Realignment of existing programs sometimes is an appealing option because it can lead to better service coordination without running up against state constitutional restrictions on creating new agencies.


The alignment of goals and oversight for a state’s education continuum from birth through age 20 is another benefit of establishing an office of early learning/childhood within an existing department. In 2021, Florida legislators enacted HB 419 to eliminate the Office of Early Learning and create a Division of Early Learning within the Florida Department of Education. The new division manages the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program, Kindergarten Readiness Program and Gold Seal Quality Care Program. The legislation charges the division with creating a seamless education system that fosters an integrated continuum from early learning through graduate school. In addition, the law establishes the Council for Early Grades Success within the department to review the student assessment and progress monitoring program.


In 2011-12, then Gov. Rick Snyder issued an executive order to move some early childhood programs from the Departments of Education and Human Services into the newly created Office of Great Start-Early Childhood within the Education Department. In a letter to the Legislature, Snyder cited a need to create the office to improve outcomes, increase efficiency and lower costs. Four programs—Early Childhood Development and Family Education; Preschool and Out-of-School Time Learning; Child Development and Care; and Head Start Collaboration—moved into the new office and report to the deputy superintendent.

What Can I Do?

Interested in creating, consolidating or coordinating child-serving programs? As New Mexico’s Garratt says, “You need knowledgeable champions committed for the long haul to ensure that during their first five years of life, children experience a safe, secure, healthy start with robust family and educator supports and services.”

Here are a few suggestions for what to do next in your state:

  • Use NCSL’s bill-tracking databases. Our Early Care and Education legislative database is updated weekly. Find introduced, pending and enacted legislation related to advisory councils and boards, study committees and other bodies.
  • Reach out to NCSL’s early care and education policy experts. We’re here to support you with additional information, testify before your committee or connect you with other policymakers or recognized experts.
  • Set up meetings with department heads, program administrators and school officials. Learn what’s working for them and where there’s room for improvement.
  • Listen to families. Conversations with parents and grandparents are often illuminating and can inform your thinking.
  • Deepen your understanding. Plug into your state advisory councils on early childhood education and care, or attend a children’s cabinet, coordinating council or legislative children’s caucus meeting.

Changing oversight and administration of any program takes time. But, with unprecedented federal funding available, there may be no better time to start thinking about early childhood governance in your state.

Alison May is a policy specialist and Heather Hanna is an associate director in NCSL’s Children and Families Program. Patrick Lyons is an early education policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

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