Early childhood education (ECE) has a long history of prioritising improved educational experiences for young children. In the US, these efforts have recently yielded large new state-level regulatory systems that have demonstrated mixed to weak effectiveness in improving quality and no consistent evidence of improved outcomes for young children. ECE leaders are now questioning the efficacy of a universal approach to defining early education. In this article we provide a brief history of the ideas that have led to current comprehensive state-level ECE regulatory systems in the US and descriptions of those systems and the controversies in which they are emerging. We follow this discussion by identifying potential areas for advancing policy and practice and discuss recommendations for future research.