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GAO Report Examines Patchwork of Early Learning and Care Programs From State to State

Resource June 13, 2019

Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) provide critical funding for high-quality early learning and care programs, and yet they are able to serve only a small fraction of eligible children. A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which serves as the official audit, evaluation, and investigative institution for the federal government, explains how state-funded early care and education (ECE) programs help extend the reach and impact of quality programs.

The report analyzes the results of a survey sent to all 50 states and the District of Columbia and found the majority of preschool and child care services shared characteristics with Head Start and CCDF, which aids in covering additional eligible beneficiaries, filling gaps in services provided, or complementing federal programs. Further, while all of these programs receive state funding, the majority rely on one or more additional sources of funding, including funding provided through Head Start and CCDF. Integrating federal, state, local, and private dollars does not come without challenges; however, program officials reported that this integration of funds allowed them to serve more families from targeted populations, and in this way, the report finds the integration may have broadened the effect and reach of quality services provided to children and families.

Summary of State ECE Programs

The report found every state administers a program that uses CCDF dollars to provide child care subsidies, and all but 4 states have at least one preschool program that serves children ages 3-5. (The 4 states without a state preschool program are Idaho, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming.) Through its survey, GAO identified 86 state ECE programs that were created by a state entity, use state funds, and have the explicit purpose of providing or funding early learning or child care services. Of these 86 programs, 73 are preschool programs, including 5 Head Start programs that receive supplemental state funding to expand services, the number of children enrolled or both. The remaining 13 are child care programs serving 0- to 2-year-olds, including 2 that provide both child care and preschool services.

Comparing state programs to federal programs, the survey found that, like Head Start and CCDF, most of the ECE programs identified serve vulnerable populations and focus on increasing children’s readiness for school and improving the quality of early childhood care. With additional state funding, some state ECE programs that mirror Head Start were able to extend access to children who were eligible for Head Start but not enrolled or to offer additional hours of care per day. In 19 states, preschool programs shared characteristics with Head Start, but offered services to children whose families earned too much to qualify. All 13 child care programs reported sharing at least one characteristic with CCDF.

Integration of State and Federal ECE Spending

Looking at state ECE spending, the report found that of the $9.44 billion spent in 2018 on ECE programs, including CCDF, 62% was spent on preschool programs, and 35% was spent on matching contributions to CCDF. Further, most state ECE programs used multiple funding sources: 55 reported using at least one funding source in addition to state funds in 2018, and 31 reported using at least two additional sources. The remaining state ECE programs are funded by state dollars only.

Much of the progress at the state and local level has been made possible by strong partnerships with the federal government aimed at expanding access, increasing quality, and more. Still, not all children and families have access to these life-changing programs. This report shows how states can leverage federal funding to create and expand high-quality early learning and care opportunities beyond what is possible with state funding alone and reiterates the need for federal funding and support to fill in the gaps of state efforts.


Click here to read the full GAO report.


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