In recent years (think way back to pre-pandemic times), legislation concerning early education had been increasing steadily in number, nuance and sophistication. In fact, from 2015-18 researchers found 2,396 bills, when you add child care legislation as well.
With the onset of the pandemic, we saw states rightfully pivoting to triage mode, providing financial relief for critical education supports and leaving behind some of the innovation that was years in the making. Heading into 2021 sessions, states still have plenty to figure out regarding assessment, program funding, learning loss and the digital divides (plus more) all while balancing budgets.
Yet, thus far in 2021, 43 states have introduced 274 bills focused on P-3 issues. Additionally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 45 states have introduced at least 411 bills regarding child care issues, which is gaining attention in part for its critical connection to early learning and for supporting the economy.
These impressive totals include several systems-level and equity-focused bills thus far, and we want to take a moment to highlight them. It is important to note that the numbers presented here track introduced legislation in most cases — and how many bills end up being enacted depends on multiple factors.
Learning Loss and Attendance
Minnesota S.F. 973 creates a summer preschool program for 4- and 5-year-olds who have not yet attended kindergarten, with priority registration for children qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, among other qualifications. This bill also provides funding for developing community partnerships to create and implement summer mentor and tutoring programs, provide field trips and hands-on learning experiences, expand access to tutoring and mental health services, and more.
Tennessee S.B. 7002 (enacted) creates after-school learning mini-camps and summer learning camps with priority registration for K-4 students scoring below proficiency in math or English language arts or who are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families supports. Attendance declines are a central issue for several reasons including funding and potential learning loss; Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania all have pending bills aimed at providing supports for young students and their families.
States are also tackling literacy development, a perennial issue, but one where recent research has identified substantial increases in students who need reading support. Kentucky S.B. 115 takes a comprehensive approach by providing professional development, coaching and mentoring supports for teachers as well as multi-tiered systems of support for students. Tennessee S.B. 7003 takes a similar approach and was enacted during a special session in January.
Early care and education governance has seen a significant uptick in legislative and executive activity. Recently, Missouri announced the formation of the Office of Childhood, consolidating leadership of agencies providing child care and pre-K among others. Minnesota, Texas and Wyoming are considering establishing a new department, and Oregon is proposing creating a Tribal Early Learning Hub.
States are taking innovative approaches to financing early care and education programs, building from ballot initiatives from the 2020 election in Colorado and Multnomah County, Oregon. 2021 sessions have been no exception to this momentum, expanding funds via a multitude of proposed sources: Massachusetts (soda tax and sports betting), New Mexico (land grant permanent fund) and Virginia (recreational marijuana). Mississippi proposed legislation that would’ve provided financial support for early learning through a tax on a new medical marijuana law, but the bill did not pass.
Social and Emotional Learning and Mental Health
There has been a marked increase in young children who need mental health support as a result of the pandemic, and states are acting accordingly. California A.B. 1361 addresses discipline approaches and reporting requirements in the state’s preschool program, in addition to expanding the types of mental health care professionals who can provide consultation services.
A proposed resolution in South Carolina would support using social and emotional learning tools to support student wellness and enhance academic learning. Connecticut H.B. 6557 would implement mental health and trauma screenings to identify needed supports, provide assistance for staff training and recruitment, and incorporate social and emotional indicators in school performance and student growth.
While there isn’t space to share all of the unique and innovative legislation that Education Commission of the States has tracked thus far, these examples represent a continued commitment to systems-building legislation that places equity and research at the center and is still front of mind for state policymakers across the country as we navigate this difficult time.