By GARY MANGIOFICO

There is no doubt that the stagnant economic conditions felt in Los Angeles and across the country today are putting a strain on many families. With double-digit unemployment, one wonders if this recession will ever end.

Precedent tells us it will. The question is: Will we be able to embrace and take full advantage of a sound economy, when the need for a skilled and educated work force will be acute as Los Angeles and California position themselves to compete in the global economy?

The answer may surprise you, and that is we need to invest in early childhood education. If Los Angeles and California are to become effective players in the global arena, then we must consider the dire need for high-quality preschool for our youngest learners.

It is very clear that in coming years, the L.A. region more than ever will need an educated and skilled local work force to meet the intense demands of a world economy, which will show little forgiveness for the unprepared. Today, we are seeing early warning signs that are causing distress in the business community.

In the 2006-07 school year, the city's high schools graduated 13,174 students, which amounted to one graduate for every dropout, according to the California Dropout Research Project. And one in four students in Los Angeles dropped out of high school in the 2007-08 school year.

It is clear this is not a trend that will bring prosperity to the residents of Los Angeles, because studies show that children who attend preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and seek higher education. It therefore makes sense to invest in early childhood education programs.

The lack of affordability and accessibility to quality preschools is today a major concern in Los Angeles County, where less than half of more than 150,000 4-year-olds are currently enrolled. That rate is even lower among children in the lower socioeconomic strata. Unfortunately, the children who need preschool the most are left out and are ill prepared for kindergarten and beyond.

Fiscal return

According to studies, early childhood education is a sound investment. In fact, a Rand Corp. study showed that for every $1 invested in a high-quality preschool education, society receives a $2.62 return. Other studies show an even higher rate of return.

Furthermore, the early care and education industry is vital to Los Angeles County's economy. The industry generates about $1.9 billion annually and provides more than 65,000 full-time equivalent jobs. It is also projected to generate the sixth highest number of jobs by 2016 of all industries in Los Angeles County, according to the Rand study. It concluded early care and education "lays the groundwork for Los Angeles County's future economic success by preparing the next generation for effective participation in the economy and attracting business to Los Angeles County."

A quality preschool education has also been shown to help bridge the achievement gap in school by ensuring that all children start kindergarten well prepared to learn. That is important because children who start kindergarten behind, often stay behind throughout the K-12 educational system. And that has costly repercussions.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O' Connell said it right, when he recently stated: "Closing California's achievement gap begins with ensuring all of our children start kindergarten well prepared to learn. High-quality preschool provides the foundation for children to succeed in school and in our increasingly competitive global economy."

The economic challenges we are facing are clear. But so are the steps we need to take to ensure our future economic prosperity. If Los Angeles and California want to remain economically competitive, the call for a homegrown educated and skilled work force must be heeded. That means investing in early childhood education for our future generation is one solution we can ill afford to neglect!

Gary Mangiofico, Ph.D., is the chief executive of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, a non-profit funded by Proposition 10, the tobacco tax initiative, with the goal of providing high-quality education for every 4-year old in Los Angeles County. He also is on the faculty of Pepperdine University's Graziado School of Business and Management.

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