The company I lead helps working adults finish their education, but lately I have become interested in how California can help its children begin theirs.

Providing preschool to all of the state's 4-year-olds is a virtually risk-free investment that will result in a stable work force equipped for the 21st century's complex global economy.

As the father of three young daughters, including a 4-year-old currently enjoying preschool, I can attest that children are ready and eager to learn even before they enter kindergarten. Now the economic and social benefits of that readiness are known, thanks to a recent study by Rand Corp.

Rand researchers analyzed high-quality publicly funded preschool programs in other states and translated their benefits to California, where 35 percent of the state's 4-year-olds are not in preschool and even fewer 3-year-olds are enrolled. If California were to extend free preschool to just its 4-year-old children, Rand projects that the state would reap $2.62 for every dollar invested. That's a 10 percent annualized rate of return over 60 years attractive to any investor.

The payback comes from reduced juvenile crime, fewer needs for special education and greater tax revenue from workers who are more likely to attend college and, therefore, earn more money because their schooling started with preschool. For every class year we provide preschool, those 550,000 students will contribute an additional $2.7 billion to California's economy over their lifetime. Long-term studies of participants in high-quality preschool have found they are more likely as adults to own homes and have savings accounts, and are less likely to be on welfare or in jail.

Universal preschool is also another tool for reforming our public K-12 education system. According to Rand, enrolling children in preschool before they start kindergarten would reduce repeated grades by 19 percent and produce 10,000 more high school graduates every year. Enrolling children in preschool, where their special needs can be identified early, would result in a 15 percent reduction in special education, which disproportionately drains public education budgets.

California currently lacks the capacity to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of children who need access to high-quality preschool. State-funded programs have long waiting lists, and the federal Head Start program can serve only a fraction of eligible children. Several California counties and school districts are devoting tobacco tax money to school readiness, but not all.

Launching a universal program comes with significant cost, to be sure. But California would recoup the financial investment in each 4-year-old by the time the child turns 14.

The world continues to evolve as a single competitive market, and our nation's success will depend on the education of our children and ensuing generations. I am concerned that without preschool, the educational level of California employees will not meet the needs of the non-technical service sector.

The explosive growth of post-secondary education for adults the business I'm in was driven by innovations that made this education more accessible to the students who needed it the most. In the same way, a universal preschool program in California will provide essential early skills to the children who need it the most.

*Andrew Clark is chief executive of Bridgepoint Education, a Poway-based company providing workplace-related courses for adults.

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