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The Next Step in Systems-Building

Early Childhood Advisory Councils and Federal Efforts to Promote Policy Alignment in Early Childhood
November 2009 |
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Click here to download the full policy paper as a PDF.

Today, preschool and other services for young children are delivered through what is widely recognized as a non-system, with programs like child care, pre-kindergarten, special education services and Head Start operating in separate policy silos, each with differing objectives and different funding streams. This uneven and uncoordinated character of early childhood policy can impede access, quality, and return on investment to these programs. Indeed, stories of avoidable dysfunction-of low-income parents who are unaware that their child is eligible for Head Start or Medicaid, of duplicative paperwork that child care providers must complete to receive reimbursements, of kindergarten teachers knowing nothing about the educational background of their incoming students-are too common to be ignored.

The Head Start Reauthorization Act of 2007 mandates that governors designate an Early Childhood Advisory Council (ECAC) to develop a coordinated system of early childhood education and care. These state councils went unfunded until a $100 million investment arrived in February 2009 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the "stimulus"). In June 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began accepting applications for grants to support the councils, and states are now working to bring them into full existence. Applications are being accepted through August 1, 2010.

Based on interviews with representatives involved in ECAC development in all 50 states, this report provides a snapshot of where states stand now. It shows that so far:

  • 19 states have councils that have been announced by the governor as the state's ECAC, either through an executive order or other communication.
  • 30 states are in the process of developing their ECAC.
  • 1 state-South Dakota-has officially decided not to apply for ECAC funding and will not have an ECAC.

While most states are taking steps forward, they vary widely in how they are tackling the mandate to establish councils. This report describes several of those approaches, while also providing a broad overview of federal initiatives that are supposed to play a role in fostering collaboration. Past efforts to use councils to coordinate inter-agency services have been hampered by funding constraints and a lack of members with high-level authority to influence state policies. This time around, stakeholders report more optimism in their ability to make an impact because of the councils' inclusion of more high-level representatives and the presence of a solid funding source.

But many challenges remain. The report offers recommendations for ensuring the success of the ECACs, which is critical as they lay the foundation for future investments in early childhood, such as the Early Learning Challenge Fund-a proposed federal grant program that is part of a bill moving through Congress this fall and winter.

To help states create effective councils, the report recommends that state policymakers should:

  • Focus on building leadership and a broad vision
  • Nurture leadership, relationships, and communication among mid-level managers
  • Position the ECAC as a key player in the policy process
  • Extend the definition of early childhood through third grade
  • Ensure that both private and public early childhood services are considered when crafting policies and funding strategies
  • Focus on system alignment

To support states as they employ these councils to build early learning systems, the report recommends that federal policymakers should:

  • Lead by example
  • Sustain current investments in early childhood over the long-term
  • Emphasize the role of ECACs in future programs and rule-making
  • Align federal data and reporting requirements in early childhood
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