Effective State Offices of Early Learning:  Structural Features, Enabling Conditions, and Key Functions in Four States

Lori Connors-Tadros, Kaitlin Northey, Ellen Frede, Katherine Hodges, and Tracy Jost


In the United States, state-level agencies manage a variety of early care and education (ECE) programs serving children birth through age 5,[i] including publicly funded preschool programs.[ii] These agencies administer almost $40 billion in federal funding and more than $8 billion in state funding, plus other state investments in early learning (e.g., literacy/reading proficiency), not including recent federal appropriations in the American Rescue Plan Act to child care providers and schools to respond to the pandemic. A state office of early learning (SOEL) often oversees and manages select early childhood programs. SOELs typically have a significant role in such tasks as setting policy to ensure the quality of programs, distributing funding to local programs, and collecting data for accountability and continuous improvement.

Although the role played by SOELs is similar, the management structure of specific ECE programs varies between states.[iii] SOELs can be located in a state education agency, human services agency, or a separate state early learning agency.[iv] For example, six states have created a lead agency for ECE with responsibility for multiple programs and functions, whereas 12 states plus the District of Columbia have consolidated multiple ECE agencies and functions into a single agency that also has broader responsibilities. The remaining 32 states coordinate ECE functions across two or more state agencies. In some states the SOEL consists of just one person or one person is assigned to early learning programs within another office in the agency.[v]

States can struggle with designing the best organizational structure for administering ECE programs. Recent examples of this challenge include the newly created cabinet level Department of Early Education and Care in New Mexico; the proposed consolidation of early childhood programs in two state agencies in Wyoming; and the unification of early childhood programs in Virginia. Additionally, there is a significant infusion of federal dollars to states for child care and schools to rebuild and reimagine the early childhood system following COVID-19. The federal Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five (PDG B–5) grants to 29 states are intended to significantly strengthen and improve states’ ECE systems.

Given this context, understanding the characteristics, organizational capacities, and functions of SOELs can facilitate equitable, effective, and efficient policies and program implementation. However, to date there is limited empirically based research on the key components and policy contexts that contribute to their effectiveness.

Download entire report here.


[i] Elise Franchino, E., & Loewenberg, A. (2019, September 30). Federal spending on early care and education: Past, present, and future. EdCentral. New America. https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/federal-spending-early-care-and-education-past-present-and-future/

[ii] Friedman-Krauss, A. H., Barnett, W. S., Garver, K. A., Hodges, K. S., Weisenfeld, G. G., & Gardiner, B. A. (2020). The state of preschool 2019: State preschool yearbook. National Institute for Early Education Research. https://nieer.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/YB2019_Full_Report.pdf. Page 39.

[iii] Bipartisan Policy Center (2018, December 13). Creating an integrated efficient early care and education system to support children and families: A state-by-state analysis. https://bipartisanpolicy.org/report/ece-administration-state-by-state/

[iv]  Education Commission of the States. (2020, November). Early care and education governance: 50 state comparison. https://c0arw235.caspio.com/dp/b7f930000d7ea95c223b4db8a6f4-

[v] Connors-Tadros, L. & DiCrecchio, N. (2019, March). The views of state early childhood education agency staff on their work and their vision for young children: Informing a legacy for young children by 2030. http://ceelo.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Legacy2030_DataBrief_Final.pdf