Center for American Progress

How To Expand Access to Affordable, High-Quality Child Care and Preschool
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How To Expand Access to Affordable, High-Quality Child Care and Preschool

This webpage provides a menu of state policy recommendations and examples of state policies to expand access to affordable, high-quality child care and preschool opportunities.

In this article
A mother holds her child during an event to reintroduce child care legislation.
A mother holds her child during an event to reintroduce child care legislation at the U.S. Capitol on April 27, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Getty/Kevin Dietsch)

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. The toolkit includes three components: this one, which focuses on policy recommendations; a second focused on messaging and communications; and a third that includes a list of related resources.

Background

The need to ensure that all children and families have access to affordable, high-quality early childhood programs and support is clear, and momentum around this issue is building. Policymakers can use this momentum to introduce policies that expand access to child care and early learning programs in their states and to raise awareness of the barriers to accessing quality. While it will often be necessary for policymakers to focus on specific areas of this issue, they should ultimately be working toward the goal of a comprehensive early childhood system that:

  • Supports healthy children and families
  • Meets family needs
  • Eases the financial burden of accessing high-quality care
  • Provides sufficient and stable funding
  • Prepares children for kindergarten and beyond

This section of the toolkit provides examples of state-level policies that expand access to affordable, high-quality child care and preschool, including:

  • Improving the current child care subsidy system
  • Targeting support to high-need areas and populations
  • Investing in the early care and education workforce
  • Implementing a mixed-delivery universal preschool program
  • Eliminating preschool suspensions and expulsions
  • Supporting the needs of young dual-language learners
  • Expanding Early Head Start and increasing supports for infants and toddlers

The toolkit also includes details about how policymakers can increase the availability of and access to robust data on early childhood issues, as well as strategies to generate revenue to fund policy priorities that support young children and their families.

See also

Policy recommendations

Early learning opportunities are predictive of educational attainment, which in turn corresponds with adult health and earnings. Having access to high-quality early care and education, therefore, sets the stage for longer-term developmental outcomes, while also enabling parents and caregivers to go to work, attend school, or obtain training. Most children have all available parents in the workforce, so having a comprehensive, mixed-delivery child care system is a critical economic resource as much as it is an educational one. But while most children across the country are in nonparental care, more than half live in a child care desert where there are too few slots available.

Policies and programs that help expand supply, adequately compensate the early education workforce, and bring down costs for working families are crucial for giving all children access to high-quality early care and education opportunities. If child care costs were less than or equal to 7 percent of families’ incomes—the threshold recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—states’ economies would increase by millions of dollars. This would be true even if child care costs were capped at 10 percent of families’ incomes. The gain in gross domestic product (GDP) from affordable child care could increase federal tax revenue by more than $70 billion annually.

Improve the current child care subsidy system

States can support working families by providing a significant public investment that guarantees child care assistance to low- and middle-income families and ensures that no family pays more than 7 percent of their income on child care. Eligibility for child care assistance should be broad enough to reach both low-income and middle-class families who struggle to afford care; it should also reflect the true cost of a high-quality program, including a livable wage and benefits for early educators. In the absence of a major federal investment in a significant new child care subsidy system, states can make incremental changes to positively affect young children and their families.

States have significant flexibility under the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) to define who is eligible to receive child care assistance and the rates at which providers are reimbursed. This flexibility provides an opportunity for states to make changes that can improve access to high-quality programs for families who rely on child care subsidies. The recent increase in federal CCDBG program funding provides an opportunity for states to enact many of these changes to ensure that subsidy systems meet the needs of low-income families.

In particular, states can increase reimbursement rates based on the true cost of care. The true cost of licensed child care for an infant is, on average, 43 percent more than the amount for which providers can be reimbursed through the child care subsidy program—and 42 percent more, on average, than the price that programs currently charge families. States should set subsidy reimbursement rates based on the true cost of quality in order to ensure that higher-quality programs receive higher rates and that rates align with adult-child ratio requirements. States can conduct a cost of quality study, or alternative methodology, to determine rates. In 2019, CAP authored a toolkit for the National Collaborative for Infants and Toddlers that provides more information on conducting cost of quality studies.

As an incremental step toward adopting a true cost of care policy, states can set their base reimbursement rates at least at the federally recommended level—the 75th percentile of the most recent market rate. This will allow families who are eligible for child care subsidies to access services in most programs. Recently, the federal Office of Child Care issued letters to state and territory lead agencies that they are considered out of compliance with the equal access provision of the CCDBG Act if their child care subsidy payment rates are set below the 50th percentile of their most recent market rate survey.

Moreover, states should make changes to income eligibility requirements to increase the reach of the subsidy program. States can set income eligibility rates to increase with inflation, so that families do not become ineligible just because their income does not keep up with inflation. They should also increase eligibility rates to a level at least 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), commonly understood to be the level at which family income is sufficient to meet basic needs. Finally, states should increase the eligibility ceiling for child care assistance, and develop a modified copayment schedule at higher income levels to eliminate or mitigate the benefit cliff effect. For this to be effective, the increases must be relatively small, and some level of subsidy support should extend beyond the current low eligibility levels.

Examples

  • New Mexico and the District of Columbia use cost estimation models to set child care subsidy rates for providers based on the cost of high-quality care. New Mexico also raised eligibility for child care subsidies for families earning up to 400 percent of federal poverty guidelines while waiving copays, effectively making child care free for these families.
  • Vermont is investing $125 million annually to expand subsidies for families earning up to 575 percent of the FPL.
  • New York invested in its child care sector by expanding eligibility for subsidies to families earning up to 300 percent of the FPL, waiving copays for families under 100 percent of the FPL, and capping copays for all other families at 10 percent of their income.
  • The governor of North Dakota signed a bill in April 2023 that eliminates copayments for families with incomes under 100 percent of the FPL.
  • Minnesota invested $750 million in new funding for child care and early learning programs, expanding eligibility for child care assistance and establishing the Great Start Compensation Support Payment Program for child care providers.
  • Eight states have set income eligibility at the federal limit of no more than 85 percent of state median income (SMI), and 21 states have set the second tier graduated phase-out level at 85 percent of SMI.
  • Washington state’s Fair Start for Kids initiative raises family income limits for child care subsidies to 60 percent of the SMI and caps family copays at 7 percent of income. It also raises provider reimbursement rates to the 85th percentile of market rates and funds health insurance for providers. Louisiana, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Utah have also set their reimbursement rates above the 75th percentile of the market rate.
Learn more

Target support to high-need areas and populations

In addition to finding a program that is high quality and that meets children’s educational and social-emotional needs, families need a program that meets their practical needs—that is, one that is available during the hours they need it, in a convenient location, and affordable. According to 2017 CAP analysis, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population lives in a child care desert, where supply does not meet demand. Yet the undersupply of child care can be even higher for certain populations, including families in rural areas, infants and toddlers, and disabled children.

More than 50 percent of the U.S. population lives in a child care desert, where supply does not meet demand.

States can take the following steps to address these deserts and ensure working families can find the care they need:

  • Gather data: As a first step, states must gather complete data on their child care landscape to understand where programs are located, their capacity to serve children of different ages, and their capacity to serve specific populations. In 2019, CAP authored a toolkit for the National Collaborative for Infants and Toddlers that provides more information on conducting a child care deserts analysis, including how to collect data. CAP’s child care and early learning data dashboard includes more detailed information on the current status of early learning in each state.
  • Reimburse providers based on enrollment, not attendance: Child care subsidies are typically administered as portable vouchers that families can use in the child care market to help cover the cost of programs. In many states, however, programs are reimbursed based on child attendance rather than enrollment. Since providers are not able to anticipate which children will be present on any given day, they cannot anticipate how many staff they will need, and this misalignment can lead to staffing costs that exceed the state reimbursement. To address this issue, states can establish a policy to reimburse providers accepting CCDBG-funded vouchers based on enrollment, not attendance.
  • Contract for slots: Using data, states can target interventions and incentives to areas of highest need, including by using contracts to encourage providers to serve subsidy-eligible children as well as specific age groups within the subsidy system. States can also modify subsidy reimbursement rates based on geography and provide targeted grants and quality supports to encourage providers to locate in underserved communities.
  • Support family child care and family, friend, and neighbor care: States should better support family child care providers and family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) care, as these are a key pillar of the early childhood system, especially for families in rural areas and families who need care outside the traditional workday. States can offer technical assistance and startup grants to develop staffed family child care networks that allow small family child care providers to access efficiencies of scale, professional development, and peer support. States can also increase assistance and outreach to FFN providers to help them access the formal licensing system and remove barriers to entry.
Reducing child care deserts and expanding services for marginalized populations

Child care deserts—areas where there are too few child care slots for the families who need them—are prevalent across the country. They affect more than half of all families, disproportionately those in rural areas, communities with low incomes, and families with infants, toddlers, or children with disabilities. Low supply drives long waitlists and high costs, often forcing families to make impossible choices about their children’s care and their own workforce participation. Changes in working hours, productivity, or job continuation affect both family economic well-being and broader economic security and growth—with costs falling on taxpayers, businesses, and state and national economies. According to a 2023 report by ReadyNation, an estimated $122 billion will be lost every year due to child care issues. West Virginia, for example, is estimated to face nearly $1 billion in economic costs due to lack of child care, while Arizona is estimated to lose between $3 billion and $4.6 billion.

Families of color are disproportionately affected by lack of access to child care. Due to a long history of occupational and racial segregation, such families are overrepresented in low-wage jobs that do not provide paid leave or allow virtual or flexible work arrangements. Child care is important for supporting children’s early learning and development and, as an economic driver, enabling parents to go to work, school, or training programs. Without access to care, families of color lose a critical lever for building economic security, and their communities lose a crucial tool for promoting racial and gender equity.

State officials can address child care deserts and promote access by increasing reimbursement rates to providers, investing in the workforce, creating new financing strategies to address the spend-down of pandemic-era rescue funding, and offering incentives, such as grants and contracts, to expand options in areas with large shares of low-income families and families of color.

Examples

  • In Arizona and Nevada, the Kith and Kin Project provides training and support to FFN providers to enhance the quality of care for children. Although the project is currently funded by nonprofit organizations, it provides a model in which states could invest.
  • The Minnesota Legislature established and dedicated funding to a new FFN care program.
  • Oregon has set aside funding for the Baby Promise pilot program, which seeks to increase access to high-quality, affordable child care through contracts with child care providers, networks of support for providers, and salary guidelines and standards of quality.
  • North Dakota has passed legislation providing $15 million to increase reimbursement rates for providers that serve infants and toddlers.
  • Tennessee is targeting subsidy increases toward counties that are considered child care deserts or economically distressed, as well as toward providers that offer care between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
  • New York dedicated $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to build and expand child care supply in state child care deserts.
Partnering with businesses

A few states are pursuing innovative partnerships with businesses to increase employees’ access to affordable child care. Michigan’s Tri-Share Child Care Program provides assistance to qualifying employees who work with participating employers; child care expenses are shared by the employer, the employee, and the state of Michigan, with each contributing one-third of the cost. Tri-Share assists qualifying employees who have an income above 200 percent and below 325 percent of the FPL.

Invest in the early care and education workforce

States can pursue a range of policies to build the supply of child care providers and ensure that they are fairly compensated for the important work they do.

Empower workers to bargain for decent working conditions

States such as California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon, enacted laws that grant the right of publicly funded, home-based child care providers to bargain collectively with the state over rates, benefits, and other working conditions. This kind of collective power gives child care workers, who make up a historically undervalued and underpaid workforce, the ability to improve workplace conditions and promote stronger health protections, increase reimbursement rates, and support provision of benefits and training, thereby stabilizing significant turnover in the workforce.

For example, this past summer, a union representing approximately 40,000 child care providers in California negotiated a 20 percent subsidy rate increase as well as contributions to retirement health care and training. And in Washington state, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925, the child care workers union, helped establish a substitute pool to guarantee continuity of care for families when providers are sick. The union has also partnered with the state to create high-quality training programs. For a workforce facing widespread staffing shortages that affect the number of child care slots providers can offer, these kinds of job improvement strategies and collective bargaining protections go a long way toward creating good jobs and recruiting and retaining highly qualified workers. Moreover, bargaining can be a jumping-off point for workers and the state to collaborate on multiple strategies—such as high-quality training and support services—that help retain and advance well-qualified providers.

Related reading

Set up a board to establish improved wages and working conditions for early childhood educators

States can show they value early childhood educators by setting up wage boards charged with developing compensation and other work standards, including those around safety, training, and scheduling. These sort of boards, often called wage boards or worker boards, have previously been used to set industrywide working standards and compensation levels in other industries. In the early childhood sector, wage boards should include government officials; representatives of private sector providers; and organizations representing child care teachers, directors, and other staff. The board would gather input from stakeholders and make recommendations to establish a wage ladder or wage scale and compensation standards tied to experience and educational qualifications.

Several states and cities have enacted bills of rights for domestic workers that prevent these workers from being excluded from labor protections that typically guarantee coverage under minimum pay and overtime standards or from protections against discrimination, harassment, and unsafe working environments. They have even been used to establish workers boards, such as the Seattle Domestic Workers Standards Board.

Create wage enhancement initiatives

As teachers are asked to meet higher standards, they must be compensated appropriately. In addition to increasing overall funding for early childhood programs—something that should filter down to teacher salaries—states can pursue the following specific initiatives to enhance teacher salaries, especially for teachers who achieve higher standards:

  • Develop or bolster scholarship programs: States can develop or bolster existing scholarship programs to support early childhood educators in completing two- or four-year degrees. Evidence shows that these programs can have significant impacts on teachers, including compensation increases, and are particularly beneficial for expanding access to college for people of color and first-generation students.
  • Provide wage supplements: Many states successfully used federal funding to implement stabilization grants during the COVID-19 pandemic. In most cases, these grants went directly to providers for health and safety measures, quality enhancements, and compensation to retain staff. States can continue offering wage supplements and salary increases to providers to improve retention or to reward providers for completing successive levels of education and training.
  • Provide employment benefits to early childhood educators: Most early childhood educators do not receive benefits such as health insurance, retirement benefits, or paid time off. States can offer these benefits in addition to creating wage enhancement initiatives.
Develop or modify systems to support the workforce

To bolster the case for increased compensation and help the workforce achieve higher standards, states should develop systems that can be used to direct the following support to teachers and administrators:

  • Create a workforce registry: A robust workforce registry would allow teachers to track progress toward professional goals; enable programs to verify teacher credentials and experience; and inform state early care and education administrators about the workforce. While more than 40 states have a workforce registry, in many, it is a voluntary system. Making registries mandatory for teachers in licensed programs would help states gather a comprehensive picture of the needs of the early childhood workforce and better direct quality improvement supports.
  • Develop career pathways: States should develop career pathways that identify a sequence of credentials, reflecting progressively higher competencies tied to roles or job titles. These pathways can provide a clear road map for early childhood professionals to advance and should be applicable across program types as well as coordinated with other state systems. Compensation standards should be established so that progressively higher stages on the career pathway, including participating in paid training opportunities, come with corresponding compensation increases.
  • Build professional development systems: States should build a comprehensive professional development system that is aligned with career pathways and program standards. Specifically, the system should be accessible to teachers—allowing them to balance coursework with full- or part-time employment—and available through a mixture of online and in-person mediums, during the evenings and weekends, and in accessible locations. Coursework and training must also be available in multiple languages. A comprehensive system should include a mix of learning opportunities; short workshops and training that target specific knowledge or skills; and mentoring and coaching to support ongoing skill development. Mentors and coaches should include those who come from the early care and education field and reflect the same racial and ethnic communities of the providers they support, as these individuals often provide more culturally responsive guidance.
  • Invest in registered apprenticeship programs: Registered apprenticeship programs provide on-the-job training, allowing the workforce to earn while gaining higher credentials. While many industries offer apprenticeships, they are not widespread in the early childhood field. States can support the expansion of apprenticeships by investing in intermediary organizations to manage administration—limiting the burden on already overworked program directors—and incentivizing partnerships with community colleges.
Examples
  • In 2007, Louisiana introduced a package of tax credits, known as the School Readiness Tax Credits, that provide support for families, child care providers and teachers, and businesses that invest in child care. Child care directors and staff are eligible for a refundable tax credit if they work at least six months for a licensed provider who participates in the state Quality Improvement System (QIS). In 2022, the credit ranged from $1,894 to $3,787 per teacher per year, and the value varies based on teacher qualifications and experience, as defined by the state’s career pathway system.
  • Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia adopted the E.A.C.H. Early Childhood program to provide a scholarship that increases compensation and creates access to higher education for teachers, directors, and family child care providers.
  • North Carolina’s WAGE$ program provides education-based salary supplements to teachers, directors, and family child care educators working with children ages 0 to 5. The program is designed to increase retention, education, and compensation.
  • In the District of Columbia, the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund provides salary bonuses of $10,000 for assistant teachers and $14,000 for lead teachers. Advocates are now developing a salary scale that provides compensation parity between public school teachers and early childhood educators with similar levels of education and credentialing. Early childhood educators and all eligible employees of licensed early learning facilities in the district also have access to free, publicly financed health insurance coverage.
  • Minnesota has budgeted $42.5 million in state funds for fiscal year 2024 to continue providing compensation support payments to child care providers once federal COVID-19 relief funds are fully allocated. That amount jumps to $316 million in FY 2025. The state also has proposed a wage scale that is designed for early childhood educators in all settings, including those working in family child care homes. The scale does not change based on the age of the children served. North Carolina’s wage scale plan, meanwhile, includes educators in all settings, with credentials ranging from introductory certificates to preschool certification.
  • Because of the collective bargaining agreement between SEIU Local 925 and the state of Washington, licensed family home child care providers may be eligible for health care and dental care benefits if they care for at least one child whose participation in care was previously funded by the state’s child care subsidy program, seasonal child care program, or child welfare subsidy program. In addition, in partnership with the state, Local 925 has created several training programs that prepare participants for certification as licensed family care providers and provide instruction on topics such as business planning, enriching practices and promoting resilience, and anti-racist and trauma-informed care. The program draws on the expertise of incumbent workers who understand how to navigate the industry and are able to offer training in several languages in order to recruit new providers from the communities in which the most need exists.
  • Unionized home-based child care providers in New Jersey were able to ratify a new agreement with the state that resulted in up to a 64 percent increase in reimbursement rates.
  • IllinoisGateways to Opportunity system requires the state’s licensed early childhood providers to participate in a workforce registry, which connects the workforce to professional development and scholarship opportunities and provides transparent career ladders.

Implement a mixed-delivery universal preschool program

While most states have some form of state-funded preschool, programs often reach only a limited number of 4-year-olds and even fewer 3-year-olds. Higher-income families are more likely to pay to enroll their preschoolers in full-day, high-quality programs, thus exacerbating the school readiness gap. States can ensure that all 3- and 4-year-olds have the opportunity to attend preschool by investing in a universal statewide preschool program. Priority should be given to low-income families who struggle to afford the cost of preschool and whose children would benefit the most from a high-quality program.

However, to promote equity, it is also important that programs prioritize socioeconomic diversity. Research shows that children benefit from socioeconomically integrated classrooms, and as such, it is important that low-income children are not segregated into classrooms according to whether they qualify for public assistance. For a universal preschool program to contribute to an equitable early childhood system and not negatively affect infant and toddler care, it is important that it offers full-day, full-year programming; is available in multiple settings, including public schools, community-based child care centers, and family child care homes; and is funded at a sufficient level to cover the cost of operating a high-quality program.

State policies that promote high-quality preschool programs

The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) has identified 10 minimum state policies that support a high-quality preschool program:

  1. Establish early learning and development standards that are comprehensive, aligned, supported, and culturally sensitive.
  2. Include curriculum supports that incorporate an approval process for curriculum selection and support for curriculum implementation.
  3. Require lead teachers in every classroom to have at least a bachelor’s degree.
  4. Require lead teachers to have specialized preparation that includes knowledge of learning, development, and pedagogy specific to preschool-age children.
  5. Require assistant teachers to hold a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or have equivalent preparation based on coursework.
  6. Require both teachers and assistant teachers to have at least 15 hours of annual in-service training. In addition, some professional development must be provided through coaching or similar ongoing classroom-embedded support.
  7. Limit class size to at most 20 children.
  8. Permit classrooms to have no more than 10 children per classroom teaching staff member.
  9. Require that preschool programs ensure children receive vision and hearing screenings and at least one additional health screening as well as referrals when needed.
  10. Require that data on classroom quality be systematically collected and that local programs and the state both use information from the QIS to help improve policy or practice.
Examples
Learn more

Eliminate preschool suspensions and expulsions

Access to high-quality preschool programs is an important strategy to close the achievement gap. Currently, more than 250 preschoolers are suspended or expelled every day across the United States. African American preschoolers are disproportionately affected, potentially expanding the preschool-to-prison pipeline down to the youngest learners.

Successful policies must also address the root causes of challenging behavior and provide support for children and teachers. Specifically, states should provide teachers with access to behavioral health consultants and training to help them identify and address behavioral problems and connect children with early intervention services. Investing in programs such as Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation helps promote positive child development and equip adults with the tools necessary to identify and prevent potential mental health issues in infants and toddlers. In addition, policies banning suspensions and expulsions should include clear guidelines to prevent “soft expulsions,” by which, in the absence of formal disciplinary procedures, parents are pressured to voluntarily remove their child from a care provider.

CAP’s child care and early learning data dashboard includes more information on state policies regarding preschool suspension and expulsion.

Examples
  • As of 2023, 31 states and the District of Columbia reported having an expulsion or suspension policy in early care and education settings.
  • In 2022, California modified provisions relating to the expulsion or disenrollment of children from the state preschool program. The policy is inclusive of child care and family child care and requires all programs to maintain records on expulsion and suspension.
  • Maryland policy restricts suspension and expulsion in pre-K through second grade and mandates the use of nonpunitive behavioral interventions.
  • Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and Oregon have policies limiting disciplinary removals in early care and education settings.
  • Pennsylvania incorporated the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation program into its Quality Rating System, and one of its stated goals is to reduce expulsions in early care and education settings. The state has also adopted a policy statement and provides resources to programs to support inclusion and reduce suspension and expulsion.

Support the needs of young dual-language learners

According to the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University and the Bipartisan Policy Center, an estimated one-third of U.S. children under age 8 are dual-language learners. Several strengths are associated with being a dual-language learner. In fact, cognitive advantages are shown to be associated with bilingualism, including improved executive function and attention. Indeed, research shows that dual-language immersion models are associated with improved developmental, linguistic, and academic outcomes for all students.

However, a lack of bilingual learning programs exists nationwide; the same is true of preschool policies for dual-language learners. States can adopt the following policies to better support these students:

  • Adopt the Head Start dual-language learner standards in state-funded preschool programs and incorporate those standards into preschool accountability frameworks.
  • Invest in the workforce needed to support dual-language learners, as well as in strategies that create new nontraditional pipelines, and improve existing teacher preparation pathways in higher education to reflect research on dual-language learning.
  • Revise workforce credentialing and licensing standards to include competencies related to dual-language instruction.
  • Expand the availability of dual-language immersion programs.
Examples
  • Several states are seeking to expand access to dual-language early learning programs, including Utah, Delaware, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia.
  • Illinois requires bilingual instruction if there are 20 or more dual-language learners with the same home language enrolled in the same early childhood program.
  • In New Jersey, all school districts are required to provide “appropriate instructional programs” to eligible preschool dual-language learners based on need, including programs and activities that promote oral language and early literacy skills in both the home language and English. These guidelines are closely aligned with those of Head Start.
  • Texas requires dual-language bilingual education programs for students in preschool through fifth grade for a district with at least 20 dual-language learners in any language classification and in the same grade level.

Expand Early Head Start and increase supports for infants and toddlers

Early Head Start is a federally funded, community-based program that provides comprehensive child and family services, such as health screenings and parenting support to low-income pregnant women and children under age 3. Its mission is to support healthy prenatal and birth outcomes and to enhance the physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development of infants and toddlers. Early Head Start services are available as both center-based and home-based programs. The program currently reaches only about 11 percent of eligible children. Yet those who participate experience a range of positive benefits, including higher scores on indicators of kindergarten and school readiness; higher gains in socioemotional, language, and cognitive development; and improved access to critical wraparound supports, such as home visiting services and housing and employment supports.

Expanding Early Head Start

To increase participation in Early Head Start (EHS), states can take the following steps:

  • Augment federal EHS funding: States can provide state funds to augment federal resources for Early Head Start. Setting a goal of serving all low-income families could be part of supporting children’s education from birth to college.
  • Encourage partnerships between EHS and other services for pregnant women, infants, and toddlers: Fostering connections between EHS and programs such as home visiting and child care is an effective way to leverage state and federal investments in services for very young children. States should lessen the financial burden of partnership by providing supplemental funding to programs that partner with other services. These partnerships also improve the effectiveness of professional development and quality improvement efforts across the early childhood system.

How to invest in early childhood data

In order for policy development and implementation to be successful, accurate and robust data are necessary to inform the need for, and impact of, proposed policy solutions. States should invest in data collection strategies and systems as well as data analysis capabilities, including by taking the following steps:

  • Coordinate among agencies and data collectors: State agencies should be directed to link data from early learning programs or to compile data in one central repository such as a state early childhood data system. Creating data-sharing agreements can help facilitate the ability of state agencies and local governments to coordinate and to make data available to nongovernment agencies that support young children and their families. States can use these data to better understand the reach of current services and gaps that need addressing.
  • Conduct early learning landscape and supply-demand analysis: CAP has developed interactive maps detailing the prevalence of child care deserts in many states. Using detailed licensing information and additional state data on demographics and community level services, states can expand this concept to produce in-depth analysis about the supply and demand of child care and preschool at the state, community, and neighborhood levels.
  • Understand the true cost of high-quality child care and preschool: A cost of quality study can estimate the cost of operating an early childhood program that meets specific state standards. Policymakers can use it in conjunction with revenue data to quantify gaps between current funding streams—such as child care subsidies, preschool initiatives, Head Start, QIS financial incentives, and private tuition—as well as the actual cost of providing high-quality services. These results can be used to more accurately determine reimbursement rates, tax credit levels, and financial incentives for high quality. State policymakers can use CAP’s “Where Does Your Child Care Dollar Go?” tool to better understand estimated costs; and for a more tailored analysis, they can utilize the “Provider Cost of Quality Calculator” or engage experts to develop a state-specific analysis tool.

U.S. Child Care Deserts

Explore CAP’s research on child care deserts

Examples

Funding considerations

Although a number of the policies in this toolkit can be implemented using current funding, the early childhood system in every state needs increased investment in order to meet the needs of all young children. Policymakers should acknowledge that access to high-quality early childhood education is a public good, with long-term benefits for children, parents, and society at large. In the absence of a federal solution that provides stable, sufficient funding to support early learning, states can step up to help fill the gap.

Policymakers should acknowledge that access to high-quality early childhood education is a public good, with long-term benefits for children, parents, and society at large.

Ideally, states would increase general revenue and direct it toward spending to address the policies outlined in this toolkit. For example, states can close tax loopholes that disproportionately benefit large corporations or the wealthy, increase tax rates on high-income earners, and identify areas where the tax system disproportionately favors higher-income families and corporations at the expense of services for low- and middle-income households. The funds generated by these changes can be used to support early childhood education initiatives or to reduce low- and middle-income families’ financial burdens so that child care and other family programs are within reach.

Examples

  • In 2023, New Mexico voters approved a ballot measure—by an overwhelming margin of 70 percent—allocating 1.25 percent of the five-year average of year-end market values to a Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education and the public school permanent fund. This is projected to generate $236 million for early childhood education across the state.
  • In 2021, Washington state passed the Fair Start for Kids Act to establish a capital gains tax that will provide funding for early care and education. The tax applies to those making more than $250,000 from sales of investment assets and was upheld by the Washington state Supreme Court in a March 2023 ruling. The act, which is expected to raise more than $400 million over its first two years (2022–2024), requires the state to expand access to early learning and child care programs.
See also

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Allie Schneider and Erin Grant for their extensive review and fact-checking, as well as Emma Lofgren, Rose Khattar, Lily Roberts, Jean Ross, Karla Walter, Maggie Jo Buchanan, Sara Estep, Molly Weston Williamson, and Jared Bass for their review and feedback.

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

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