Three Things to Know About Early Childhood Systems of Governance

When Colorado voters passed Proposition EE in 2020, they ushered in a period of transformation for the state’s early childhood ecosystem. The ballot measure created a universal preschool program for 4-year-olds, which ultimately led to the creation of a new cabinet-level early childhood department. When the department launches in July 2022, Colorado will join only six other states with early childhood specific lead agencies: Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Washington.

States Use Three Models of Governance

According to the Education Commission of the States, there are three governance models that states use (Education Commission of the States):

  1. Coordinated: Thirtyone states use this model in which early childhood programs are administered by two or more agencies that collaborate and coordinate.
  2. Consolidated: Twelve states and the District of Columbia use this model in which multiple program functions, including preschool and childcare, are consolidated into one already existing agency.
  3. Created:  With the addition of Colorado, seven states have created a new early care and education specific agency with responsibility for most early childhood programs and functions.

Clearly, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to early childhood governance and the variation we do see reflects this. A range of contextual and political factors must be taken into consideration when states decide to make a change to their system of governance, just as Colorado most recently did.

Factors to Consider When Reforming Governance

This report and decision guide from Foresight Law + Policy can help. State policymakers are encouraged to consider key questions before beginning the process of changing governance. They are prompted to first reflect on the goals of the state’s early childhood system and to assess the state’s readiness for reform. They are then guided through questions that are more process oriented and capacity related. Questions such as:

  1. Has the state identified its priorities for the early childhood system?
  2. Is the process supported by high-level political leaders?
  3. What interagency connectivity tissue has the state created, and how might it adapt to a new configuration of programs across agencies?
  4. How can the state sustain a healthy state-to-local dynamic? Is the state equipped to manage the state-local relationship on an ongoing basis?

Characteristics of Effective Early Childhood Governance

No matter which governance model states choose, there are key factors that can contribute to an effective structure. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has identified twelve lessons from their case studies of four state offices of early learning (SOEL). Here are just a couple key lessons:

Lesson #1: Emphasize a governance structure that provides sufficient authority

Alabama’s Department of Early Childhood Education was the only separate state agency included in the study and they found that it, “Clearly benefits from its broad authority and the direct line to and unwavering support from its various governors and legislatures.” Authority is an essential element of early childhood governance that Kristie Kauerz and Sharon Lynn Kagan (2012) emphasize as well. They also add sufficient accountability to the mix, including fiscal, program, workforce, and performance accountability. Several of NIEER’s twelve lessons reflect a focus on accountability:

  • Identify a set of priorities, with quality at the core, and pursue them relentlessly.
  • Regularly assess whether SOEL performance is meeting its goals.
  • Create a data culture that improves decision-making and influences funding.

Lesson #9: Build collective capacity within and across sectors and systems

NIEER describes a need for infrastructure from the SOEL to the local level to build collective capacity across the system. Infrastructure needs include things like leadership, workforce, and resources. Capacity is such an important element that three of the eight key questions in the Foresight Law + Policy decision guide are related to it.

As Colorado launches its new department, we will be watching with interest to see how it incorporates some of these lessons learned from the literature and other states that have gone before them.

Where Can I go To Learn More?

Education Commission of the States’ Early Care and Education Governance Resource: This is a robust collection of resources including a 50-state comparison of governance systems and a national decision guide for policymakers reflecting on the system.

The Future of Preschool in Colorado – Governance: This report from Early Milestones Colorado demonstrates a real-time weighing of the pros and cons of various systems of governance. The potential drawbacks to a new state agency offer some insight into why a created model of governance might be so rare still.

Lyndsay Shields

Lindsay Shields

Lindsay is the Research and Operations Coordinator at ECE Insights and a second-year Ph.D. student in CU Denver’s Child, Youth, and Family Studies program concentrating on Early Childhood Policy. She has years of experience working at a Head Start program in Tulsa, Oklahoma where she began as a preschool teacher and then worked in the program’s Research and Innovation department.

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