Looking Back on 2013: Early Education Policy in the States

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For most every American policy debate, this is the very worst of times. Recent congressional gridlock has stalled even watered down efforts to address immigration reform, climate change, gun violence, ESEA reauthorization, and more. Nothing is happening. Nothing, that is, outside of ongoing jockeying for advantage in the obsessive fiscal battles consuming Washington’s attention since 2010.

By comparison, early education (birth through 3rd grade) policy is on the move. Perhaps it’s not the best of times, but there’s movement—and that counts for a lot at the end of 2013. As is customary in early education, some of the most exciting initiatives are coming at the state level. Sure, the House and Senate introduced pre-K expansion bills (bipartisan in the House!), but their chances of becoming law in this Congress are, as yet, pretty slim.

So if you’re looking for some year-end, early education holiday cheer, take a look at the list of state reforms in this recent report from the Education Commission of the States. It covers many changes states made during the 2013 legislative session to improve their early education systems: 38 bills across 25 states.

Many of the changes reflect the ongoing fiscal constraints limiting states’ ability to invest additional resources in early education. This year, in lieu of expanding budgets, states sought ways to streamline the ways that these programs are delivered. This translated into changes in the organizational structure of various states’ early childhood bureaucracies, adjustments to teacher preparation guidelines, tighter oversight of boards of education decisions around English language learners, and more specific quality rating and improvement system expectations for pre-K programs. Even lower-cost changes like these can make a big difference in the incentives shaping teachers’ and districts’ decisions.

But while times are tight at the average statehouse, some legislators were determined to find new funds to expand more and better early childhood options for their constituents. Nevada set aside $1.5 million to pilot a school readiness assessment in pre-K and kindergarten. Mississippi established a state-funded pre-K program that will begin next fall.  Minnesota began a new Early Learning Scholarship “for families with a child who will be 3 or 4 by Sept. 1 and with an income equal to or less than 185% of the federal poverty guidelines.” Washington created a high-quality, comprehensive, aligned early childhood system to support students from birth to five years old (for more on the early childhood situation in Washington, read Paul Nyhan’s post here). Finally, Michigan added $65 million to its public pre-K program.

In sum, even if 2013 was a thoroughly disappointing year for political progress on our most serious challenges, there’s evidence that momentum is building around improving and expanding early childhood education in the United States. Next year’s challenge: bringing that attitude to Congress.