States Take Action to Improve and Expand Early Childhood Education

Participation in early childhood education programs has been linked to better health, higher educational achievement, and higher socioeconomic status in adulthood. Given that programs have been shown to yield a $2 to $4 return for every $1 invested, many states are looking upstream and investing in the education of their youngest residents.

What governors are pledging:

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey: “With Strong Start, Strong Finish, we are making our largest investment ever in education. We are setting high standards for student learning, and our efforts are paying off as we provide our students with the tools they need to grow and succeed.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham: “This is the session, this is the year, this is the moment we put New Mexico on the path to universal pre-k for every New Mexico child. … My budget calls for investing $60 million in new pre-k classroom slots … that includes money for early childhood educator scholarships, so that we are proactively building and supporting the next generation of top-flight educators in this state.”

As state leaders weigh the many important competing priorities for state spending, early childhood education has risen to the top in a number of states. A recent analysis by the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) showed that 14 of the nation’s governors prioritized investments in early childhood education in their 2019 inaugural or state of the state addresses.

The following analysis shows how state policymakers are putting their priorities into action by improving how states plan and manage early childhood initiatives and invest in programming. Nationwide, state leaders have identified preschool/prekindergarten expansion, enhancing access to quality childcare, and providing economic supports for early childhood educators as priority areas. State leaders are advancing these initiatives through state budget appropriations, executive orders, and legislation. The following provides an overview of state actions.


State leaders prioritized early childhood education through budget actions aimed at improving the program quality and expanding access for vulnerable populations. A sample of these budget actions include:

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the state’s education budget bill on June 6, 2019. The budget includes funds to support an expansion of Alabama’s prekindergarten program, allowing the addition of 164 new classrooms in 38 counties.

Colorado’s enacted budget, signed by Gov. Jared Polis on April 18, 2019, includes funding for universal, full-day kindergarten.

New Mexico’s budget, enacted on April 4, 2019, includes a $29.1 million increase (representing a 10.4 percent) for its Children, Youth and Families Department budget, a $24.5 million increase for prekindergarten, and new investments in at-risk childcare and childcare educator scholarships and wage supplements.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget includes a $68 million increase to maintain and expand access to preschool for more 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families; a $15 million increase in childcare funding to improve childcare subsidy system program payment rates and create new incentives to expand infant care and prioritize quality care and services; and $30 million to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit as well as the continuation of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, according to Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

New York’s enacted budget provides $6.8 million to reduce the risk of childhood exposure to lead paint and a 5 percent rate increase for Program For Infants And Toddlers With Disabilities, and $15 million to expand prekindergarten programs for three- and four-year-olds targeted to high-need school districts.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Ever’s proposed budget includes increased support for YoungStar, Wisconsin’s childcare quality rating and improvement system, and Wisconsin Shares, a childcare subsidy program. It also includes a funding increase for the Pyramid Model, a tiered intervention that enhances social and emotional competence in infants, toddlers, and young children, and $5 million to support early childhood education programs.


State legislators are also taking a leading role in enhancing early childhood education in their states by introducing and passing bills that expand access, improve quality, and provide support for families and teachers.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law HB 1615/Act 506, which established a farm-to-school and early childhood education program to bring fresh, local food to children in school meals and created the position of a farm-to-school and early childhood education program coordinator.

Colorado Gov. Polis signed into law HB19-1005 entitled “Income Tax Credit for Early Childhood Educators,” which provides an income tax credit to early childhood educators who hold a professional credential.

State leaders in New Mexico also prioritized support for early childhood educators. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed HB 275 into law which, among other actions, amends the Teacher Loan Repayment Act to include early education teachers. She also approved SB 22, creating a cabinet-level Early Childhood Education and Care Department, and HB 589, which expands the state’s Community Schools Act to address the cultural and linguistic needs of students enrolled in early childhood programs and prekindergarten through high school by partnering federal, state, local, and tribal governments with community-based organizations.

In Maryland, The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, SB1030, increases state spending on education by $1 billion over two years and expands access to full-day prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year olds.

In Virginia, SB1015 expands the eligibility for the Education Improvement Tax Credit Scholarship to prekindergarten, making scholarships available to middle-income families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or 400 percent of FPL if a child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Executive Orders

Governors acknowledge that supporting early childhood development is not only about investing funds, but making sure funds are spent effectively. Several governors used executive orders to establish or re-establish a children’s cabinet or advisory council/committee, or to task an existing council with new work related to early childhood.

Delaware Gov. John Carney issued Executive Order 24, “Making Delaware a Trauma-Informed State,” which orders the Family Services Cabinet Council to develop a Trauma-Informed Care toolkit and coordinate collection and reporting of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) data and requires all state agencies that provide services for children and adults to integrate trauma-informed best practices.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued Executive Order 11, “The Way Ahead for Virginia’s Children: Establishing the Children’s Cabinet.” Priority areas include early childhood development, school readiness, nutrition, and food security. The commission, established by Executive Order 13, “Establishing the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Quality Child Care and Education,” explores the feasibility of providing an evidence-based early care and learning program for young children of state employees working in and around Capitol Square in Richmond.

Wisconsin Gov. Evers issued Executive Order 6, “Relating to Re-creating Non-Statutory Committees,” which re-created several councils and committees, including the Early Childhood Advisory Council, the Birth to Three Early Intervention Interagency Coordinating Council, and the Council on Autism.

These examples show how states can use executive and legislative policy levers to advance early childhood education and quality childcare in their states, thereby helping children get the best possible start and providing the foundation for a healthy future. Because early education is shown to produce positive returns, states investing in this area are also investing in their economic futures.

This report is part of a series exploring how state leaders can improve the upstream factors affecting health, such as healthy environments, safe housing, and equity.

Produced in partnership with the de Beaumont Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.