As state and federal policymakers gather in capitals across the country to take the oath of office, New America’s Education Policy program has released an agenda with 10 important actions to help reform the country’s education system, spanning birth through higher education and the workforce. While some of these actions can only be carried out by federal policymakers, many lie in the purview of state policymakers. Actions that can be directly taken by state lawmakers are highlighted throughout the guide.
Expanding access to quality early learning is one key action for both federal and state policymakers. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
State lawmakers can improve the accessibility of child care by increasing financial assistance for families struggling to afford care. State subsidies to help working families afford child care have decreased over time and currently only one state has reimbursement rates at or above the 75th percentile of the market rate. These low reimbursement rates can force families to choose between struggling to pay more out-of-pocket or choosing a lower-cost option that is possibly of lower quality. State policymakers can address this problem by increasing state spending on child care subsidies, as is currently being discussed in Maryland.
State lawmakers should also provide adequate funding to help school districts offer full-day kindergarten to all students. Research suggests that students attending full-day kindergarten programs achieve larger learning gains compared to their peers in half-day programs. As kindergarten becomes increasingly demanding, a half-day program simply doesn’t provide teachers with enough time to cover all content in an age-appropriate manner that includes a mix of instruction and play.
Lawmakers would do well to look to Oregon as a strong example of how to increase the availability of full-day kindergarten. The decision of Oregon lawmakers in 2015 to fund the $110 million annual cost of full-day expansion led school districts to create more than 1,000 new full-day classrooms. Today, 99.7 percent of the state’s kindergarten students are enrolled in full-day programs, compared to just 42 percent prior to the legislature’s decision to provide additional funding.
State lawmakers can also play a role in ensuring both teachers and leaders are fully prepared to provide quality early learning experiences. New America’s recent principal focus groups revealed that principals realize the importance of the early grades but often lack the necessary knowledge to provide instructional guidance to early educators. State lawmakers can address this problem by requiring principal preparation programs to incorporate more content related to early education. Currently, only Illinois explicitly includes early childhood content and field experience in its principal licensing requirements.
To improve the quality of teaching in early education, state lawmakers should enact policies for teacher preparation and professional development that put a premium on the quality of interactions between adults and children. Research suggests that young children’s academic and social advancements are most significantly associated with having teachers who engage in back-and-forth interactions with students on a regular basis. Teacher evaluation policies should encourage the use of observation tools that measure the quality of interactions between teachers and students.
Federal policymakers also have a role to play in increasing access to and the quality of early education programs. Federal lawmakers should continue to fund the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program for families who desire those services. The MIECHV program connects families with trained professionals who help parents gain skills to ensure their children’s healthy development. In FY 2015, the program served over 145,000 parents and children in all 50 states. This kind of support is one of the most effective interventions that can be put into place to assist at-risk parents.
Finally, should federal lawmakers choose to pursue Head Start reauthorization, they should use reauthorization as an opportunity to improve the program to allow for more innovation and coherence across local, state, and federal efforts. The federal government’s Early Head Start - Child Care Partnerships grant program is a good example of such innovation. These grants allow Early Head Start programs to partner with local child care centers and family child care providers to improve the quality of care. These partnerships have nationwide reach, with at least one grantee in each state. To allow for more innovation within Head Start, Congress should allow the Department of Health and Human Services to grant flexibility to certain programs to allow them to test new approaches for serving children and families.These are just a few of the recommendations New America has put forward for reforming the nation’s education system to better serve our youngest learners. Check out the guide for all of this year’s top priority areas, ranging from improving early education to reforming the financial aid system for students in higher education