Skip to main content

Educate Our Youngest Children: States Organize For Early Learning Under The Federal Education Law

November 21, 2017

When the latest version of the federal education law—dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—passed a few years ago, advocates concerned about the undersized investment and quality in preschool, toddler, and infant early education, and about a lack of focus on the early elementary grades, had reason for celebration and caution; they could celebrate because this version of the law specifically mentions young children and how the various segments of the law can be used to meet their needs, but caution was necessary  because it continues the largely discretionary approach to using the planning, reporting, and spending provisions to foster early education.

As 2017 is coming to a close, the BUILD Initiative decided to check in to see how it is going. In states with well-organized advocates and leaders who are building strong coalitions and developing a focused agenda, some focus on early learning is seen. Let’s take a closer look at Connecticut and New Jersey.

New Jersey

New Jersey’s child advocates set about to create a strong coalition and to work in an intentional manner to include early learning in New Jersey’s approach at the state level.  The advocates felt they needed to have a cadre of stakeholders advocating for a broader prenatal-to-third-grade continuum to shift the ESSA lens from its primary focus on K-12.  Their focus is on continuing to expand pre-K in New Jersey, which is grounded in a proven diverse delivery that has had a lot of evaluation, and on addressing issues of chronic absenteeism, which allows an approach that incorporates the years before kindergarten as well as early elementary grades. In fact, their data shows that the problem of attendance begins early, with absenteeism being much higher in pre-K compared to kindergarten through third grade.

(Source: Advocates for Children of New Jersey)

Chronic absenteeism, which is also an indicator that states can use to measure progress on their state education plans, and is being used in this way in New Jersey, was also attractive to the New Jersey  advocates because it includes an equity focus.  According to the report,  Showing Up Matters: The State of Chronic Absenteeism in New Jersey, students from low-income families and children of color are more likely to become chronically absent. Their absences are often attributed to the challenges of everyday life, such as unreliable transportation to and from school, unstable housing, and inadequate access to health care. Research also indicates that community violence plays a role. In the 2013–14 school year, black students made up about 16 percent of New Jersey’s student population, but they represented 24 percent of the state’s chronically absent students. Similarly, Hispanic students comprised approximately 25 percent of the total state enrollment, but represented about 30 percent of the total absentee rate. Children from economically disadvantaged families also made up a significant portion of New Jersey’s absent students. Although children in low-income families comprised 38 percent of the state’s pre-K-12 population, they reflected approximately 55 percent of the number.” (Advocates for Children of New Jersey, Showing Up Matters: The State of Chronic Absenteeism in New Jersey, August 2015).


Connecticut took a different approach, with its effort spurred by the state leadership team at Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood. This group set about building a broad-based coalition that included representatives from state agencies and organizations, public schools, and community leaders.

With this broad-based coalition in place, Connecticut ultimately included early childhood as a specific focus in four of the eight primary areas in its state plan, including cross-divisional teams at the State Department of Education, evidence-based guidance being developed to support school improvement, school needs assessment tools, and guidelines for pre-K-to-K transition.

Both Connecticut and New Jersey consider themselves early in their work of bringing together their federal education plans and implementation strategies, both state and local, and are quick to note that there is lots of opportunity to keep working on early childhood issues as local school districts put together their own plans, and as states get deeper into their own work to help implement the federal education law. The federal law places an emphasis on accountability, school improvement, assessment and standards, and ensuring that students are college and career ready.  Early childhood can inform each of these important dimensions of education, and the opportunity to cultivate an interest in and commitment to early childhood as part of this work is ongoing. Let’s keep in mind that we are just at the beginning of the ESSA process.

Let’s celebrate a pro-active approach that brings together a lot of partners and recognizes that state and local education agencies have a lot going on, and that supporting them to develop leadership and actions is part of maximizing how ESSA can help.

But let’s be cautious too, and acknowledge that most of the work for young children within ESSA is optional, and that traditional educators who focus on kindergarten through 12th grade do not consider themselves early childhood experts, and that they face many challenges within their primary focus.  It’s our responsibility as advocates for young children to cultivate their awareness and understanding, to advance partnerships, and to secure a strong place for young children within state and local ESSA plans and implementation strategies.

Explore More