With Los Angeles mired in a deep economic recession, there is no question that these are tough times for the jobless, as well as the many businesses that are struggling to survive throughout Southern California.

With no immediate relief in sight, it is not surprising that another major threat to L.A.’s future economic well-being is not being widely discussed in the business community. That threat, which will hurt America’s position as the world’s preeminent economic power, is our slide in world rankings as it pertains to creating an educated future work force capable of competing in an increasingly tougher world economy.

One solution to this troublesome concern may surprise you, and that is a greater emphasis on early childhood education, a long-term strategy that the business community would greatly benefit from.

According to a new report, “Why Business Should Support Early Childhood Education” by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, a non-profit, nonpartisan affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, investment in high-quality early learning programs for children from birth to age 5 yields high returns. In fact, research shows that for every dollar invested, savings range from $2.50 to as much as $17 in the years ahead.

Early childhood education, including quality preschool, is not only a smart investment with positive returns, but it is the right thing to do, the ICW report concludes: “Our nation cannot afford the cost of inaction. In decades past, the United States proudly claimed premier international status as home to the best and brightest. Today’s U.S. rankings, however, prove that we have a long way to go to reach the top of the list again.”

ICW warns that with current early childhood education resource levels, too many kindergarteners will continue to begin school ill-prepared, a problem that has lifelong implications. Furthermore, language skills, and achievement scores in math and reading will likely remain at mediocre levels; costs for intervention during the K-12 years and after will continue to rise; and high school graduation rates and postsecondary degree completion rates will remain less than ideal. As a result, businesses in Los Angeles and the United States as a whole will lack the necessary work force to fill the jobs of the future.

It is a fact that other countries have a better understanding of the value of early childhood education. They know it can have a significant short- and long-term positive impact on children and society, including helping to ensure a future skilled and educated work force, something that is in the best interest of the L.A. business community.

Sadly, middle-income families in America are increasingly being squeezed by the cost of quality early education. That is evidenced by the fact that only about half of 4-year-olds in Los Angeles County are receiving a preschool education.

Universal preschool is available in places like Great Britain, Scandinavia and France, but not in the United States. With China making sure preschool is available more widely as part of a push to develop a highly skilled work force, the United States continues to fall behind. In fact, America is one of the few highly developed countries that don’t have close to a universal preschool system in place.

According to ICW, eight states (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New York and West Virginia) plus Washington, D.C., have committed to providing a preschool education for all children. Hopefully, someday soon, California will follow.

The future ability of the business community in Los Angeles to compete in the global economy is at stake!

Celia C. Ayala is the chief executive of Los Angeles Universal Preschool. LAUP funds high-quality preschool programs for approximately 10,000 4-year olds annually in more than 325 preschools across Los Angeles County.

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