Two preschool girls participate in a moving and learning activity.

This brief is one in a series of six on key early childhood issues for state policymakers. The series is designed to assist new state leaders in promoting informed policy decision-making in states to give kids a healthy start in life.


The Issue

Early care and education (ECE) experiences in safe and responsive environments, with caring and well-trained caregivers and teachers, have been proven to support cognitive, social, and emotional development for children and consistent work participation by parents.

Why It’s Important

The availability of high-quality, affordable ECE is critical for families and the economy. Research has shown that investing in programs to support families and children, birth to age 5, is an effective strategy to promote economic growth and support success in school and lifelong health for young children. In addition, the research is clear that children who live in poverty or at-risk because of other life circumstances are especially impacted positively by early care and education programs.

Considerations for State Policymakers

Federal resources for ECE are provided to states through a number of programs, including Head Start, Child Care and Development Fund and most recently Preschool Development Grants, which were awarded to 45 states to build and enhance preschool programs. In addition to these federal resources, states have flexibility to design, implement and fund policies and programs that address the early care and education needs of young children and their families.

1.    Increase Availability of ECE

Across the nation, families struggle to find available care and education for infants and toddlers. The shortages of care are particularly pronounced in rural areas and communities with lower median incomes.

  • Expand access to Head Start and Early Head Start. Thirteen states supplement federal Head Start funds with state funding.
  • Publicly fund pre-kindergarten programs through the public school system. Forty-five states have public pre-kindergarten, and 10 states serve more than half of 4-year-olds in these programs. States can seek to finance such programs through various mechanisms.
  • Provide financial incentives for early care and education providers to support access and quality.

Specific state examples include:

  • Indiana has implemented a preschool pilot program called On My Way Pre-K, which awards grants to 4-year-olds from low-income families, so they can attend a high-quality pre-K program the year before they enter kindergarten.
  • Independent, corporate and nonprofit child-care providers in Louisiana that participate in the state child-care assistance program are eligible for a refundable School Readiness Tax Credit. The tax credit increases with each star rating of the facility so that 5 star-rated centers can receive $1,500 per eligible child.

2.    Ensure Affordability of ECE

For many families across the country, child-care costs exceed the cost of housing, college tuition, transportation, or food. Low-income and single parent families are particularly impacted by the high cost of care. States have acted to make care more affordable through multiple strategies.

  • Expand access to child-care subsidies: All states receive Child Care Development Funds. Key considerations for expanding access to child-care subsidies include:
    • The family income threshold to initially receive and continue to receive a subsidy. The maximum income at which families of three are eligible for subsidies ranges from $30,000 in Maryland to $78,000 in Colorado.
    • The amount families must pay as a co-payment.
  • Lower costs through state Child and Dependent Care Tax Credits (CDCTC): Twenty-four states have tax credits available to households that incur expenses on child and dependent care, and in 11 states, the credit is refundable.

Specific state examples include:

  • Colorado recently made changes to the funding methods for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) and established eligibility levels for all counties at 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • In Iowa, the CDCTC is fully refundable and ranges from 30 percent of the federal credit for families making up to $45,000 per year and 75 percent of the federal credit for families making under $10,000 per year.

3.    Promote Quality and Equity in ECE

Key elements of a high-quality ECE system in a state include:

  • Early learning standards, curricula, and assessments that address the whole child;
  • Well-prepared teachers that receive ongoing support including teaching and mentoring;
  • Classroom environments that support learning; are small; support students with unique needs; and ensure that all children—regardless of race, income, or native language—have positive experiences;
  • Meaningful family engagement; and
  • Well-implemented program assessments and a quality rating and improvement system.

Specific state examples include:

  • The Office of Early Learning in Florida is developing tools to assess performance and increase accountability programs, including requiring assessments of children at least three times a year and allowing a parent to monitor the growth and development of their child across programs.
  • Washington state is meeting the needs of children who are learning English as their second language by creating training and professional development resources on dual language learning; strategies for family engagement; and working in culturally diverse communities.
  • Oklahoma has established a Task Force on Trauma-Informed Care to study and make recommendations to the Legislature on best practices with respect to children. One key area of focus is to improve disciplinary practices in early childhood education and care settings and schools, including but not limited to: use of positive disciplinary strategies that are effective at reducing the incidence of punitive school disciplinary actions, such as school suspensions and expulsions.
  • Early care and education teachers in North Carolina are supported to build their skills through training and salary supplements and an agreement between the University of North Carolina and state community colleges to facilitate transfer of credits in early education field.
  • The Georgia Cross Agency Child Data System brings data together from programs and services for young children so the state can identify service gaps and provide an integrated and aligned approach to demonstrate how the state is meeting the needs of children ages 0 to 5.


About Ascend

Ascend at the Aspen Institute is a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. Ascend takes a two-generation approach to their work—focusing on children and their parents together—and bring a gender and racial equity lens to their analysis. Learn more at