05/15/2014 02:20 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

A Fair Start for California's Children

On the same day that California Governor Jerry Brown released his revised state budget proposal, a new State Preschool Yearbook looking at California's early learning programs found that our state is moving in the wrong direction. We are one of only five states in America that meet fewer than half of 10 quality benchmarks.

The revised budget proposal calls for only minor adjustments to State Preschool and child care programs that are still suffering from nearly $1 billion in cuts since 2008. With the 2014-15 state budget, California has an opportunity to transform itself from one of the nation's biggest underperformers to one of its biggest winners by investing more in high-quality early learning for our kids from birth to age five.

Early childhood education is a wise investment that has proven over and over again to make not only big savings possible, but also pay substantial dividends. According to a recent report released by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California, high-quality early education results in a net savings of $22,000 for every low-income child served through a combination of reduced criminal justice costs, K-12 education, health care savings and increased lifetime earnings.

Ultimately, this is a question of California's budget priorities. We currently spend more than 10 times as much on prisons than on preschools; the total annual cost per preschooler is about $4,000 while the annual cost per inmate is $60,000. Studies have even shown that high-quality early learning in California would save approximately $1.1 billion annually in prison costs by reducing the number of prisoners by 13,000 annually.

Equally as compelling is the research showing that early education is essential to brain development and future success. I have written about this in the past, but it's worth repeating, because children who start out behind too often stay behind. When children are just two-years-old, there's already a six-month gap in language proficiency between lower- and higher-income children.

It's this kind of research that has attracted a broad range of attention and support from national leaders like President Obama, as well as a wide variety of law enforcement, business leaders and others -- and Californians are paying attention. A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 9 out of 10 voters in California believe preschool is important for true K-12 success. When asked if California should include funding in the 2014-15 budget to provide pre-k for all 4 year olds, 73 percent of Californians supported the investment.

As home to one in eight of America's children, California has the opportunity to move the nation in the right direction. According to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, the decrease in California children served in early learning programs actually "pulled the national total down."

As the negotiations continue and California moves towards a final budget, we hope policymakers keep the scientific research and opinions of millions of Californians in mind. Investing in success up front rather than in remediation down the road just makes sense. It's time we give our children the fair start they deserve.