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State Lawmakers Increasingly Realizing the Importance of Early Care and Education

“Let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life behind. Let’s give our kids that chance!” These were President Obama’s words during his 2013 State of the Union Address, where he called on the nation to expand access to early childhood education. While federal progress has been slow, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) quarterly Early Care and Education E-Update shows that Obama’s call to action has not fallen on deaf ears, particularly at the state level.

An NCSL survey of 20 state legislative fiscal offices showed overall increases of 3.8 percent, or $368.8 million, to state appropriations for early care and education programs between fiscal years 2014 and 2015. Responses from 13 out of the 20 states showed pre-K appropriations received the largest increase between FY 2014 and FY 2015, increasing by nearly $275 million. Home visiting--along with other early care initiatives such as parent support and early literacy--saw an increase in appropriations, as well. Child care still leads in overall early education spending, but hasn’t changed much, for any of the 20 states since last year.

As of July 2014, state lawmakers across the country had introduced nearly 1,000 bills on the topic of early care and education. The majority of the bills signed into law -- at least 116 --promote school readiness for 3- and 4-year-olds, including measures that expand funding and access to pre-kindergarten. Below are highlights of some states legislative actions; a complete list can be found here:

  • California made changes to its fiscal year 2014 State Budget Act, with the intent of providing low-income 4-year-olds from working families with full-day, full-year early education and child care services. The bill also requires the program be integrated and aligned with the existing child care and elementary school systems.
  • Hawaii made kindergarten attendance mandatory for children who turn five years old as of or before July 31 of the school year starting with the 2014-15 school year.
  • Maine allowed school districts to expand their preschool programs to all 4-year-olds in 2015-16. The state is offering start-up, one-time grants to support these efforts.

Bills addressing state governance also received notable recognition, with 30 enacted bills in 15 states and Puerto Rico. The goal of these legislative pushes is to create a more structured early childhood system. And while building that system wouldn’t happen overnight, it is a step in the right direction. The table below notes additional categories of enacted early care and education legislation from the 2014 session.

Table 79

As states start to expand their early education efforts, federal investments in early education have also shown improvement in alignment between state and federal efforts--if not dramatic increases in funding. The fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill included additional funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to be used to provide grants to Head Start programs that partner with local child care providers and serve more low-income infants and toddlers in high-quality programs. And the funding bill offered the Department of Education an extra $250 million dollars in funding for the newly created Preschool Development Grants program. That program stemmed from an even broader approach by the Obama administration to create new investments in early learning opportunities for all low- and middle-income children so that they enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

The federal government provides states with more and more incentives--and money--to foster high-quality early care and education programs. That encouragement helps lay the groundwork for PreK-12 alignment in the states. But given political and fiscal challenges the federal government faces, the influx of state efforts to build on that foundation is promising for the future of early learning.