A new day may be approaching for early care and education as Congress considers a reconciliation package that would inject approximately $390 billion into early childhood education (ECE) over six years. This would eventually ensure that all 3- and 4-year-olds (in states that opt in) have access to free preschool while all families making under 250% of state median income have significant child care subsidies.
Even if the bill does not pass, the slow rollout of American Rescue Plan Act funds suggests that our current early care and education infrastructure is not up to the task of running an optimal system. States may want to consider a new layer of local governance altogether with the creation of early childhood districts, which I’ve proposed in a brief published by the think tank Capita.
Early childhood districts would be very similar to school districts but, in most cases, would have a regional geography rather than direct alignment, given the inequities inherent in the way many school district boundaries have been drawn. Unlike almost all existing coordinating ECE bodies, districts would act with governmental or quasi-governmental authority. Structurally, depending on state laws, the districts could either be set up as a new layer of local government or as an empowered nonprofit agency.
Early childhood districts are valuable because a single entity is assigned to govern child care and pre-K within a region and is provided with the resources to do so. These districts could take on the responsibility of ensuring the facilities in their area are prepared for the influx of children, for aiding in the recruitment and training of the workforce, and for creating an easy interface for parents to find and select the child care program they want. Eventually, other early childhood services such as home visiting, which supports pregnant people and parents with young children, could be included in this structure.
Readers may note that many of these features currently exist in other forms — child care resource and referral agencies, shared service alliances, hubs and the like. However, early childhood districts can align these resources under one umbrella that is universally known by parents, thus creating more cohesion and equity. These districts could also unburden state agencies by allowing subsidy and facility funding to flow to the regional level, which could create a more proactive and democratically responsive access point for parents.
There are already proofs of concept for many elements of the district model. The Denver Preschool Program, Louisiana’s Ready Start Network and Neighborhood Villages in Boston all exhibit important aspects of robust local or regional governance.
To set up early childhood districts, state policymakers might consider convening existing early childhood stakeholders to address implementation challenges. Co-creating districts with practitioners and parents will be important to avoid inequities and keep children and their families as the focal point of these efforts. In some cases, new laws or regulations will be required to provide districts with the authority necessary to meet objectives.
As the U.S. prepares for the future of early care and education, early childhood districts offer a new administrative and governance model that can help lead the country forward.