Education and Workforce Development Policy

An Urban Institute Briefing for State Leaders

Supporting working families and building a thriving future workforce to maintain a strong economy can include a range of policies from prekindergarten services, expanded child care options, and effective career pathways to quality K–12 education and affordable college.

Urban research can help policymakers think broadly about the workforce development needs of families—supporting working parents and enabling future generations to achieve economic mobility.

Evidence-Backed Policy Solutions

Urban Institute research can inform states’ efforts to support low-income working families moving up a career path and the economic ladder, by creating an education and workforce policy agenda backed by evidence.

Urban experts make several policy recommendations for state leaders:

Invest in the future workforce by improving access to pre-K services: State policymakers can support the quality of their future workforce by investing in quality prekindergarten—and ensuring families can access it. Urban research highlights strategies to support access for the one-quarter of the future workforce who are children of immigrants.

Strengthen community colleges as a path to better jobs and higher earnings: Many states have adopted performance-based funding schemes for community colleges. Designed properly, these systems could improve educational outcomes and align community college course offerings with labor market needs.

Promote apprenticeships to help bridge the skills gap: A cost-effective strategy for upgrading workers’ abilities, apprenticeships pair hands-on training with classroom instruction. Competency-based occupational frameworks can help employers and others fast-track development of their own apprenticeships.

Support career advancement through the career pathways model: Policymakers can get the most out of career advancement programming by helping remove barriers to education and training, requiring strong partnerships with employers to ensure that education and training line up with demand, and funding demonstration programs that combine and test advancement strategies.

Ensure child care subsidies reach more working families: In many states, Child Care and Development Block Grant subsidies are increasingly going toward center-based care. Yet about 60 percent of low-income children younger than age 6 with working parents may not be able to access child care centers. To better serve these families, states can work to improve the supply of home-based child care settings, as well as centers, through financial incentives; a mix of vouchers and contracts; targeted training, technical assistance, or other resources to support supply and access; and consumer education efforts.

Support work, education, and training among parents by meeting their child care needs: States can more efficiently use limited public resources by simplifying and improving access to and retention of child care subsidies. Strategies include extending certification periods to reduce program churn, streamlining verification rules, and use electronic data to verify employment or income.

Evaluate school funding formulas:  In all but five states, statewide formulas control most school funding. These formulas often attempt to account for state and district revenue and anticipated differences among districts. What they cannot always account for, however, is how districts might respond to different incentives. Of the common funding models, no one model is best; each can bring distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Research That Drives Decisionmaking

Urban’s research and analysis can guide state leaders as they map out policy priorities.

Of the 21 million parents who are low income, almost three in five (58 percent) have at most a high school education. And only about 1 in 10 low-income parents reports being enrolled in some form of education and training. About half also work, and many have circumstances that suggest they are likely to need child care. These numbers suggest low-income parents could benefit from workforce development programs, but may face child care challenges that keep them from participating. 

One of six workers in the US are immigrants—and immigrants could help meet employer demand for workers in middle-skill jobs.

State school systems are often evaluated by their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called the nation’s report card. Adjusting scores to account for demographic differences across students in each state—like eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches—can change how states’ scores compare. 

Data Tools That Answer Questions

Screenshot of 10 Characteristics of Preschool-Age Children feature

10 Characteristics of Preschool-Age Children

What are the characteristics and demographics of 3- to 5-year-olds in US states and local communities—and are these children enrolled in preschool?
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Screenshot of School Funding Formulas feature

School Funding Formulas

Are low-income students getting a fair share of school funding, based on the interactions of multiple funding streams, policies, and the demographic structure of states and their districts?
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Team Meeting

Guide to Learning About Local Workforce Systems

Where do cities in your state rank on economic, racial, and overall inclusion?
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Mother and Son at park

Who Might Face Barriers to Accessing Quality Child Care?

Where are federal child care subsidies going in each state—and how many low-income families may be missing out on assistance?
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Screenshot of Financing Public Higher Education feature

Financing Public Higher Education

How do states compare to each other and nationally in college affordability and accessibility?
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To connect with policy experts at Urban, email Amy Elsbree at externalaffairs@urban.org.


Urban Institute is a nonprofit research organization. Urban’s policy experts translate research findings and data findings for diverse audiences, apply insights to real-world problems to find solutions, and share their recommendations with policymakers at every level. 

Urban Institute, as an organization, does not take positions on legislation or policy issues. Urban’s experts are empowered to follow the evidence to provide policy recommendations based on their research and expertise. The recommendations expressed here should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. This resource was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation through the Urban Institute’s Low-Income Working Families initiative.