Making Sense of Governance in Early Childhood

Early Learning

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This guest post comes from Elliot Regenstein, partner at Foresight Law + Policy. All views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

Research increasingly shows that the first five years of life are a critical period for child development. States have responded by ramping up the availability of services supporting early childhood development. But historically funding for those services has been spread across multiple state agencies, which makes it difficult for communities and service providers to ensure that families are getting what they need. As a result, states are increasingly focused on how they can rethink their governance systems to improve child and family outcomes.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is also bringing early childhood governance to the forefront. Managing the consequences of the pandemic has tested the capacity of state government in dramatic ways, and some state leaders see well-designed governance as critical to building and rebuilding state systems in the future. There is no question that there will be significant fiscal impacts on state early childhood programs in the coming months and years, and in some states that is only increasing the urgency of their conversations about governance.

Education Commission of the States has provided many resources for states over the years to inform their thinking about early childhood governance and is working on additional resources to help policymakers understand the national landscape of early childhood governance. Working with state partners, Education Commission of the States staff also contributed significantly to the development of a national report released in June: Early Childhood Governance: Getting There From Here. This report is based on interviews with 90 state and national informants, including policymakers and advocates from 27 states. On July 1, we held an event to launch the report that featured former Washington State legislator Ruth Kagi, former Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White, and Rebecca Gomez of the Heising-Simons Foundation.

This report includes a decision guide that identifies key issues states may want to think about in designing their early childhood governance and highlights some of the trade offs states will have to wrestle with. These include:

    • Tying governance design to policy priorities.
    • Using a broad process of engagement to develop plans for early childhood governance.
    • Identifying the core functions of an early childhood system that a governance structure needs to manage effectively — including fiscal management, overseeing program quality, supporting professionals, stakeholder engagement and communications.
    • Ensuring that the governing bodies at the state and local level have the capacities they need to be successful in those core functions and are each assigned roles that take advantage of their strengths.
    • Making a smooth transition from the state’s existing approach to a new one.

All of these areas demand thoughtful, nuanced approaches, and this report is meant to help states wrestle with these fundamental issues.  One important lesson learned in states that have made governance changes is that taking the planning seriously saves a lot of work after a new entity is established, whereas rushing into a change can result in “moving the silos closer together” without actually making meaningful changes.  States that want to make a change are going to need to put in the effort to make it successful, and this report can help them organize that process.

Before the pandemic, multiple states were already rethinking their early childhood systems and governance structures — in some instances using the federal Preschool Development Grants-Birth to Five to fund their work. For example, in Wyoming, the governor’s office has appointed an Early Childhood Governance Task Force that plans to develop recommendations by the end of 2020.

These states are learning from structures developed elsewhere around the country. In Arkansas, Maryland and Michigan, multiple early childhood programs are housed in state education agencies. In other states like Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts and Washington, early childhood programs have been brought together in a dedicated agency. New Mexico’s early childhood agency officially assumed its new responsibilities July 1.

As states are facing pressure to make the most of limited resources, they will likely find that strong governance can help to ensure that children and families benefit fully from services the state supports.

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