Streamlining Family Experiences Enrolling in Early Childhood Programs

Two new federal resources highlight opportunities for state coordination and alignment.
Blog Post
March 6, 2023

A family that has just welcomed a child into the world may be looking for resources and programs to support their development in their first few years of life. With over 36 federal programs and additional state and local programs serving new families with children, where do families even begin?

Having many programs to choose from is not necessarily a bad problem. But, when each program has its own set of requirements, application and interview process, and portal for submitting documents, it places a huge burden on families to navigate. This requires time that families, and those most in need of resources, often do not have. At the same time, state and local staff often only have access to information about the specific programs they manage. The result is children and families not receiving the critical benefits and services they need and deserve.

Early childhood involves more than just children and more than just one system. Hence, many agencies and departments invest resources in early childhood programming. The federal government alone coordinates 36 programs for families and young children across five departments. The involvement of multiple departments increases the potential for program fragmentation, overlap, and duplication, as documented by the Government Accountability Office.

Added to the mix is the significant role state and local governments play in managing federal programs alongside state and locally funded programs. When program regulations and enrollment processes are not aligned, government agencies function inefficiently and parents face significant barriers. To attempt to improve families’ experiences, the federal government identified navigating early childhood programs as a priority area for improvement in response to a 2021 Executive Order on transforming the service delivery and customer experience of federal programs.

Improving families’ experience is no easy task. At the state level, early childhood programming can also be carried out across multiple agencies depending on the Early Care and Education (ECE) governance structure. Currently, 20 states administer ECE programming across three or more agencies. Governance impacts decision-making on program elements and processes that are provider-facing (such as administering funding to providers, regulations, and accountability) and client-facing (such as application questions, eligibility criteria, definitions, required documents, and redetermination periods). Coordinating and aligning ECE programming at the state level can facilitate eligibility for and consistent access to high-quality child care in the setting of family’s choosing, necessary early intervention and mental health services, food and cash assistance, and other social safety net programs.

So, what opportunities exist for states to both align program administration and support families’ access to services? For several years, the Administration for Children and Families has administered Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five grants to states to support improved collaboration across ECE programs. Below, I highlight two new federal resources featuring opportunities for coordination and alignment.

Improving Program Administration through Coordination and Alignment

State and local leaders have long pointed to a lack of coordination and alignment at the federal level as the key barrier preventing their efforts to create an aligned, comprehensive early childhood system. In response, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) released multiple resources as part of the Early Childhood Systems Collective Impact Project. ASPE reviewed statutes, regulation, and guidance documents for 36 federal programs and focused on five program elements that are important levers for coordination: 1) program eligibility, 2) needs assessments, 3) outcomes and performance measures, 4) well-being metrics, and 5) equity.

There are three resources available for states to identify opportunities to improve the administration of federal programs. The catalog provides information on how federal statutes, regulations, and guidance address each of the five program elements for each of the federal programs. The crosswalk aggregates information from the catalog by the five program elements. It is useful for comparing requirements across programs. And, the synthesis summarizes key findings from the review, such as the frequency of specific program requirements, where those requirements are articulated, and differences in eligibility requirements and thresholds. The resources display information in different ways that complement each other; they vary in the level of detail depending on where states are in the process of coordination and alignment.

Improving Access through Family-Friendly Application Processes

Beyond streamlining programs, there are also resources guiding states through how to improve the family experience when applying for assistance and make the overall process less intimidating, frustrating, and time-consuming.

Last year, the Office of Child Care (OCC) put together resources on making child care assistance applications more family-friendly. The OCC recommendations comply with federal Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) rules and regulations and provide a template for what an ideal application would look like. While this guide is specifically designed for CCDF administrators, it contains best practices that can be applied to other applications or to create multi-program applications that allow families to apply for multiple programs through a single application. This includes using simple language, making clear the purpose of the application, and personalizing the application based on responses to previous questions. These changes not only benefit families, but also state-level staff responsible for reviewing applications.

All families with young children deserve access to ECE opportunities. Time spent seeking support should be met with clarity and access to tangible resources, not confusion and additional paperwork. Improving coordination and alignment of programs and processes requires intentional planning and time, and increased efforts to document and raise awareness of this issue, including a forthcoming report by New America’s New Practice Lab, have resulted in practical, actionable resources for states to improve early childhood systems and programming. These resources provide guidance for states to make the process of applying for and enrolling in early childhood programs a smoother one for families with young children.

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