05/26/2010 06:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Only Kids Can Fix This Economy

In my day job, I worry non-stop about making wise investments for long-term gains. In my philanthropic work, I do precisely the same, but I face far less worry and enjoy much more certainty. Why? Because I focus on supporting high quality early childhood health care and education. By betting my resources on very young children, I know I'm making an investment that pays guaranteed dividends with a high rate of return. Our politicians ought to do the same, and we ought to demand it.

Early education is the type of issue politicians nod their heads at, and then when it comes time to make a tough decision, a financial trade-off, inevitably it's about the first item tossed from the table. It's not that public officials don't care; they just see these programs as "nice to have" but not vital.

We now know that's absolutely not true. Early childhood education is an urgent educational, economic and moral imperative. Without it, we face a long-term national economic security crisis.

From the perspective of a business executive and an investor, I can tell you these programs are absolutely vital and one of the best investments of tax dollars we can make. By investing in the highest quality early childhood education, we reduce costly social burdens and increase economic productivity.

Thanks to a raft of economic and scientific research that's emerged in the last two decades, we can actually quantify the link between quality early education and achieving our most vital economic and social goals - a competitive workforce, improved health outcomes and reduced crime, among others.

Take the achievement gap. Today, we seem to think it suddenly appears somewhere around 3rd grade, and that's about when we start addressing it. But that's far too late. We have evidence the achievement gap is actually apparent as early as 18 months. The best way to address it is to eliminate the gap in the first place.

Special education costs have soared, putting enormous unmet burdens on local, state and federal budgets. And yet, we also know from research that high quality early education can reduce later special education referrals by as much as 50 percent. Think about that. Special education in Illinois, my home state, can cost as much as $100,000 per child per year.

What about high school dropouts? Research by economists like Nobel Prize-winning Jim Heckman of the University of Chicago tells us one of the most cost-effective ways to increase high school graduation rates is to make sure kids aren't already behind when they start kindergarten. For the most at-risk children--the ones who have never been read a book or held a crayon--it's not impossible to catch up. But it's almost always more difficult and far more costly.

Take life and character skills. The most critical time for developing these is from birth to age 5, when young children need to develop the ability to listen, concentrate on completing a task, regulate emotions, develop motivation and a work ethic, and get along with peers. These of course are skills I look for as an employer. The time to ingrain them in children is before kindergarten, but not all families possess the wherewithal to do so. That's where skilled early education professionals help enormously.

Professor Heckman has proven that investing in quality early childhood development of disadvantaged young children will produce as much as a 10 percent annual return on investment. That return comes both to individuals, in increased adult earnings, and also to society, in better education and health outcomes, and less crime and poverty.

Private and philanthropic sectors are stepping up as never before to invest in early childhood education. We have helped create or support a set of high quality models of early education that achieve the kinds of outcomes I have mentioned.

In my hometown of Chicago, we have supported Educare, the gold standard of high quality early education. Educare provides full-day, full-year care and education for disadvantaged children from birth to five. Those children benefit from highly qualified teachers, as well as a full range of family supports to help parents be active partners in their children's development.

It's a public-private partnership that braids together existing public funding streams--including Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care funding--to serve the most at-risk children. The first Educare was built in the shadow of the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, in what was at the time the poorest census tract in the United States. Today, there are ten operating Educares across the country, and another six in development. It's one of many vivid illustrations of programs where private dollars have leveraged public dollars effectively.

I'm enormously proud to say that the children who enter Educare emerge with vocabularies and school readiness scores that meet and exceed national averages. By the time they enter kindergarten, they're on a level playing field with advantaged, middle-class children. We closed the achievement gap with these kids by making sure it never opened in the first place. Elementary school teachers report that parents of Educare alums are far more engaged in their children's education than parents of other kids. And we all know that parent involvement is the holy grail of school success.

There will be no greater opportunity to strengthen this supply chain for quality American workers for the next generation than supporting the President's Early Learning Challenge Fund in this year's proposed FY2011 federal budget.

The grant program, which was recently dismissed in a conference committee more concerned about nationalizing the student loan industry than with maintaining our world economic leadership, is the equivalent of a Race to the Top Fund - but for early education. It would strengthen and coordinate state systems, raising standards and accountability in what currently is a mixed bag of early childhood programs with wide disparity in quality.

Write your Congressman and Senators and tell them to prioritize the President's Early Learning Challenge Fund in this year's proposed FY2011 federal budget. You'll get a return on your investment of tax dollars that will solidify our nation's economic competitiveness for years to come.

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An entrepreneur, technology venture capitalist and philanthropist, J.B. Pritzker is a business and civic leader and a leading advocate for civil rights and young children in poverty. He founded one of the Midwest's leading venture capital firms, New World Ventures, and co-leads The Pritzker Group, a private investment firm. He is also a principal owner of Hyatt Hotels Corporation and TransUnion Corporation. As president of the Pritzker Family Foundation, J.B. Pritzker is one of the nation's leading philanthropists in early childhood development. He has also applied his entrepreneurial efforts as a tireless champion for human and civil rights both nationally and internationally, serving as Chairman of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and a principal funder of the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor.