Building Momentum: State Progress on Early Learning in 2019

Preschool students in Redondo Beach, California, take part in classroom activities, April 2010.

As 2019 draws to a close, state-level momentum for early learning shows few signs of slowing down. Many governors followed up on campaign promises by collectively proposing nearly $3 billion in new funding in their 2019 budgets to improve infant well-being and address child care’s high costs, low wages, and lack of quality options. In response, many states used 2019 legislative sessions and budgetary processes to improve the early learning landscape for children, families, and educators.

While home visiting services and affordable, high-quality child care and preschool remain out of reach for far too many families, this column highlights three areas where states have made significant progress this year.

Laying the groundwork

Several states took actions in 2019 that laid the groundwork for early learning improvements. By convening stakeholder groups, conducting research, and establishing departments focused on early education, states have made incremental steps toward progress. Importantly, states must turn the recommendations of these reports and committees into policy change in order to reap their benefits. The states highlighted below have also increased investment in early learning in recent years, indicating their commitment to translating their goals into opportunities for children, families, and providers.

  • New Mexico established a new Department for Early Childhood and Care that will bring the state’s programs supporting children together to better coordinate services.
  • New York launched a child care availability task force. The group is composed of experts and stakeholders focused on developing solutions to improve access to quality, affordable child care.
  • Oregon similarly passed a bill establishing a task force on access to quality, affordable child care. The task force will build on Oregon’s recent child care investment and will provide a report to the legislature recommending how to increase access to and usage of child care subsidies.
  • Washington enacted the Child Care Access Now Act. The bill establishes a work group to move toward an ambitious goal of simultaneously addressing affordability, quality, and workforce pay by 2025. The system it develops could be a model for implementing a progressive child care system in other states.

Expanding access to child care and preschool

High-quality preschool and child care help children succeed in school and build essential social-emotional skills. These programs also help parents, particularly mothers, remain in the workforce and avoid lost earnings and benefits—especially when they can meet full-day and flexible work schedules. The first year of life is the most rapid period of brain development for children and coincides with decreased wages and increased debt for parents. Yet states are failing to provide adequate support for families during this crucial time. Ten states currently serve a majority of 4 year-olds in public preschool, affordable infant and toddler care is scarce, and underinvestment in communities of color means that Black and Latinx children are especially unlikely to access high-quality programs. Fortunately, several states and the District of Columbia have made headway this year in expanding access to child care and preschool.

  • California increased funding for early care and development by more than 15 percent. This increased funding will expand subsidies to an additional 12,400 children; expand full-day kindergarten across the state; help 10,000 additional children attend state preschool; construct and support early learning and care facilities; provide training and support for the child care workforce; improve access to child care for parents in the state’s work assistance program; improve data collection and usage; and develop a “Master Plan” for a comprehensive early childhood system in the state. California also enacted A.B. 378, a bill assuring collective bargaining rights for underpaid and overworked home-based child care providers.
  • Colorado invested $175 million to make free full-day kindergarten available to all families. The state also enacted a limited tax credit to help low-income families cover child care expenses of up to $1,000 per year, and passed a bill to limit suspensions and expulsions in public preschools and elementary schools.
  • Louisiana added funding for early learning programs to replace an expiring federal grant and build quality child care supply, particularly for infants and toddlers. The state is also providing continued funding for these programs by implementing a tax on hemp-derived CBD products and dedicating a portion of gambling revenue to their Early Childhood Education Trust Fund.
  • Illinois added significant investment to its Early Childhood Block Grant and Child Care Assistance Program in order to expand and improve services and make more families eligible for assistance. The state also allocated $100 million for building and updating child care and school facilities as part of an infrastructure package.
  • Texas enacted H.B. 3, an education bill that includes substantial new investment in preschool. The bill requires existing pre-K programs to be full-day and to meet quality requirements, providing funding to help them do so.
  • Washington, D.C., while not a state, has outpaced many on early learning investment. In 2019, the district added $15.8 million in funding for programs included in the Birth-to-Three for All DC Act of 2018, which has not yet been fully funded or implemented. Implementation of the bill would build on Washington’s success with universal preschool, expanding affordable child care access to the youngest children and raising early educator wages.

Supporting babies

Strong support systems help new parents face the challenges that come with welcoming a new baby. Home visiting programs can provide support through health screenings, connection to community resources, and parental coaching around nutrition, stress management, and nurturing interactions. While these programs have demonstrated significant benefits to families and a high return on investment, just 3 percent of families with infants currently receive them. Responding to this need, several states have made recent policy changes to better support families at this critical period.

  • Illinois increased funding for early intervention services and ensured that all children exposed to lead would automatically receive them. The state also passed a series of bills promoting maternal and infant health.
  • Ohio made substantial increases in funding for home visiting, moving the state toward the governor’s goal of tripling the number of families served. The state’s budget also included significant increases for early intervention services and lead poisoning prevention.
  • Oregon enacted S.B. 526, authorizing statewide universal home visiting using the Family Connects model. When fully implemented, all new parents will be eligible for a home visit from a registered nurse, who can support and connect them with essential services.
  • Pennsylvania is establishing an evidence-based home visiting program through physical health managed care organizations participating in Medicaid. The program will help provide a support system for new mothers and infants with disabilities.

Conclusion

Early learning programs benefit families and the economy and enjoy broad bipartisan support, but these benefits are not being fully realized in the absence of large-scale federal investment. State policymakers are well-positioned to expand and improve on these programs in order to address the child care crisis and improve infant health. Thankfully, many are recognizing this opportunity and investing in preschool, child care, home visiting, and other programs that will improve the lives of children and families. States must continue to step up to ensure that high-quality early learning programs are affordable, equitable, and accessible for all. Heading into 2020 and beyond, governors and legislators can learn from and build on 2019’s progress to keep up the momentum for supporting children and families.

Steven Jessen-Howard is a research assistant for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.