The Role of Licensing in Supporting Quality Practices in Early Care and Education

Publication Date: April 3, 2019
Cover from CCEEPRA Licensing and Quality.jpg

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Licensing is traditionally viewed as providing the foundation (or the floor) of quality in early care and education (ECE) settings. States and territories are responsible for licensing child care programs, and a license serves as permission to legally operate a child care program. The essential purpose of licensing is to provide basic protections to prevent harm to children. Initiatives like Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) often build on the basic requirements of licensing to define quality and support programs in achieving higher levels of quality.

This conceptualization of licensing as a basic, first step toward quality has begun to change recently. Licensing is increasingly viewed as integral all along the quality continuum, not just as the floor of quality. Further, some ECE policymakers are considering how all aspects of the licensing system—from the standards to monitoring compliance to enforcement—can support the quality of ECE. Although the conceptual relationship between licensing and quality is evolving, there is little research about how licensing influences quality. This brief provides a framework to support discussion and research in this important area.


The primary purpose of this brief is to describe a framework for the role of licensing in supporting quality ECE. The framework is intended to assist Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) and licensing administrators in their work to oversee ECE. It is also intended to help researchers in their efforts to articulate and test hypotheses to better understand the relationship between licensing and quality.

Key Findings and Highlights

The framework is presented in two parts. The first shows how licensing is an important part of the system that supports quality ECE. The second shows how the components of a licensing system can influence the activities of licensing staff, which can then improve outcomes for providers and the broader ECE system.

The brief presents hypotheses about how the individual components of licensing (e.g., standards, enforcement) can support quality ECE. It also includes examples of hypotheses that could be tested about each component.

The brief includes a set of possible research questions related to licensing and quality, as well as a description of existing licensing data at the national level that could be used in research.


Child Trends convened an expert panel to discuss the ideas presented in the brief, reviewed literature to inform the development of the framework, and collaborated with the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation to finalize the brief.


The final section of the brief offers next steps to build the research base on the relationship between licensing and quality ECE. These include, for instance, developing strong partnerships between licensing administrators and researchers as well as expanding current research studies to include some licensing data.


Maxwell, K. L., & Starr, R. (2019). The Role of Licensing in Supporting Quality Practices in Early Care and Education. OPRE Research Brief #201931. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


early care and education
regulation of ECE settings to protect children from harm and ensure that providers are operating legally
Quality Rating and Improvement System
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