There’s little argument that Los Angeles and California are facing tough challenges as they grapple with cuts to programs and services needed to offset budget deficits that threaten to mortgage our future.

For the business community, these are also tough times, with economic recovery topping a wish list that also includes less regulation and a more business-friendly environment at City Hall and in Sacramento.

However, equally important to the well-being of our communities is the ability of Los Angeles and the state to produce a future educated and skilled work force, capable of meeting the challenges of an increasingly competitive global market.

For years, the educational debate in Southern California and elsewhere has revolved around the K-12 school system, with government officials encouraging school boards to improve the quality of education in those grades. Another concern has been the high dropout rates in high schools across Los Angeles and California.

Why should we worry? Nearly 90 percent of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs require a high school diploma or some postsecondary education, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization.

The same organization points out that one-third of American students – about 1.3 million a year – do not graduate from high school and estimates that dropouts from the class of 2008 will cost California alone nearly $42.1 billion in lost wages over their lifetimes. Closer to home, the Los Angeles Unified School District recently reported its high school graduation rate was only 56 percent in 2010-11.

Public-private partnerships are one solution that should be considered. There is an opportunity for business, community and government leaders to have a constructive dialogue about the future of education, how to best prepare children for life and careers, and the role that high-quality preschool can play.  

Being ready for kindergarten has become more important than ever, with studies showing those who enter elementary school with an achievement gap are likely to struggle and require remedial help throughout their school experience. This translates into a future work force that is ill-prepared to meet the high demand for skills necessary to place Los Angeles and California in the forefront of the global economy.

Return on investment

According to Children’s Defense Fund, investment in quality early education programs can produce a rate of return to society significantly higher than a return on most stock market investments or traditional economic development projects. Yet, despite such evidence, little is being done to insert quality preschool as an essential part of education reform.

About half of the 4-year-olds in Los Angeles County today do not attend preschool, and that is an issue that must be remedied. Publicly funded programs – such as State Preschool and Head Start – are available to some, but only the poorest families qualify and spaces are scarce.

For middle-class families, the high cost of private preschool often makes it a luxury they cannot afford. As a result, our society suffers, as do many children who enter school not prepared mentally or socially.

So, what is the solution?

For starters, a prekindergarten-through-12th-grade approach to education policy needs to take root in Los Angeles and across the nation to ensure America is able to produce a top-notch work force that takes into account children’s need for a quality education at an early age. This is happening in most industrialized countries, and America should follow suit.

Many people wonder how preschool can have such a huge impact. One reason is brain development. Simply put, a 4-year-old’s brain is hard-wired to learn at an amazing rate. As noted by Earlychildhood News, whose target audiences are teachers and parents of young children, 50 percent of a person’s ability to learn is developed in the first years of life.

Given such statistics, engaging in a discussion on how to best improve our children’s education without starting with preschool is a deficient proposition. We must take preschool into consideration when we’re discussing our children’s education needs.

Until then, it is imperative that we convey to policymakers the importance of public investment in early education.

The alternative is more costly, and one we cannot afford.

Celia C. Ayala is chief executive of Los Angeles Universal Preschool. Bob Zukis is a partner with PwC U.S. and member of L.A.U.P.’s Corporate Council, a group of local business leaders that champions preschool education.

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