Article

Early Childhood Education in U.S. States

A Toolkit for State Policymakers

This toolkit provides information and resources to help state policymakers advocate for increased investments in their state child care and early learning systems.

A preschool student raises their hand as teachers lead a class at an early learning public charter school.
A preschool student raises their hand during a class at an early learning public charter school in Washington, D.C., on October 5, 2023. (Getty/The Washington Post/Jahi Chikwendiu)

This toolkit is an update to the Center for American Progress’ 2019 early childhood toolkit for state policymakers. It includes new data and policy options, drawn in part from previously published CAP resources, and is organized into three chapters:

  1. How To Expand Access to High-Quality Child Care and Preschool
  2. Messaging and Communications To Promote Early Childhood Education
  3. Related Resources on Child Care and Early Learning

Access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education is essential for children, families, communities, and the economy. Early experiences form the foundation of the physical and cognitive architecture that supports children’s health and learning potential throughout their lives. To put children on a trajectory for success, therefore, policymakers must promote their access to experiences that support the development of this architecture, including through enriching early learning environments.

During the first three years of life, babies’ brains develop more than 1 million neural connections every second. Safe, nurturing environments and positive social interactions with trusted caregivers during these early years lay the foundation for future development and well-being. Second only to interaction with family, child care is the environment where young children interface the most with trusted caregivers. High-quality child care, even as early as infancy, improves learning, language development, and social-emotional skills that are necessary for children to thrive in kindergarten and beyond.

Early experiences form the foundation of the physical and cognitive architecture that supports children’s health and learning potential throughout their lives.

Child care is a necessity: On average, two-thirds of children in the United States have all available parents in the workforce. But lack of access to affordable care often forces families to make difficult decisions about their work to care for their children. Nationally, an estimated annual loss of $122 billion in earnings, productivity, and revenue is attributed to families’ challenges securing infant and toddler care.

Over the past few years, the child care industry has seen an unprecedented infusion of federal funding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the American Rescue Plan allocated $24 billion in emergency funding to help child care providers keep operating, but that funding expired at the end of September 2023. State policymakers, therefore, are in a prime position and can play a critical role in making policy decisions that empower families to access early learning opportunities that prepare children for the future.

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About this toolkit

CAP has developed this toolkit for policymakers and state advocates who champion early childhood issues in their states and local communities. The toolkit complements CAP’s child care and early learning data dashboard, which provides context and data on the landscape of child care and early learning in each state, by outlining a holistic view of the role that state leadership plays in promoting access to high-quality affordable early learning programs.

The toolkit provides information and resources to help policymakers advocate for increased investments in their state’s early childhood system. In addition to including examples of policies that support state child care and early learning, the toolkit provides messaging guidance and talking points to help policymakers and advocates elevate the need for early childhood policies. It also suggests communications strategies and sample messaging to ensure that discussion of child care and early learning permeates state and local policy discussions and reaches constituents.

State leaders can use innumerable strategies to address the needs of children and families in their districts; what this toolkit offers is not an exhaustive list, but rather a sample of evidence-based solutions and a selection of examples from states across the country to illustrate the options available.

Explore the full toolkit

For more information on any of the topics outlined in this toolkit, please contact earlychildhood@americanprogress.org.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Authors

Anna Lovejoy

Acting Senior Director, Early Childhood Policy

Hailey Gibbs

Senior Policy Analyst

Team

Early Childhood Policy

We are committed to advancing progressive policies with bold, family-friendly solutions that equitably support all children, families, and early educators.

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