02/20/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Making the Smartest Investment for Our Nation Through Its Most Vulnerable Children

Even in these tight fiscal times, if our nation could invest in young children right now in a way that was certain to yield future benefits many times over -- not just for them but for every American -- wouldn't we call that a smart investment?

That's exactly what President Obama proposed last week -- first in his State of the Union address and then at an early childhood learning center in Decatur, Ga. He announced a new plan to invest in early childhood education that features a federal-state partnership to promote universal pre-K focused on four-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, and the creation of a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership that provides competitive grants to states and local communities to expand high-quality birth-to-three programs.

And it's not just the president. Investing in quality early childhood education is an idea that's catching on among more state policymakers, educators and communities across the country. They recognize our collective responsibility for ensuring that all children have the opportunity for success. They also understand that the success of our youngest children -- a growing number of whom are children of color or come from poor families constricted by generations of poverty -- will determine the future health of our entire economy and society.

We know from research that by the time these children start kindergarten, many are already facing enormous challenges. Yet we also know that making investments in high quality early childhood programs in the early years will help break the persistent cycle of poverty affecting their families and help them reach their full potential. As the president rightly noted, "Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on -- by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime... Students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own."

Current programs such as Early Head Start, Head Start and the Early Learning Challenge Fund have a huge, demonstrable impact on the lives of vulnerable children and families. Any steps that the federal government and states can take to increase access to these programs further -- particularly during a child's most critical developmental years -- will remove educational achievement barriers.

Although it's wonderful to see the White House taking bold and exciting steps in this area, at this point it's still a proposal, and one that has many details to work out. We need to know more about whether child-provider ratios will be sufficiently small and research-based, how and by whom the federal monies will be distributed, whether it will recognize and foster high-quality community-based early childhood centers -- not just those based in schools -- and how the K-12 system will be held accountable for its role in supporting positive long-term outcomes.

Most importantly, we can't forget that a child's education begins at home, so we need to make sure that early and effective family engagement is a centerpiece of our nation's early childhood strategy.

Nevertheless, the attention brought to early childhood education by the president this week is an excellent way to jump start a nationwide commitment to preparing our next generation. At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we've been working with community-based organizations for years to advance a prenatal-to-age eight agenda that supports vulnerable children and creates the conditions to propel them to long-term success and independence. This new, forward-thinking initiative holds the promise of at last creating a true local-state-federal partnership that brings people together in support of making smart, cost-effective investments where they can have the greatest impact.