As Los Angeles slowly climbs out of a recession that has taken a heavy toll on businesses, it will only be natural that the demand for a well-educated, skilled and high-performing work force will gradually increase.

But we must ask ourselves some important questions: Are we well-prepared, especially in future years, to compete in the global economy? Are we taking the necessary steps to secure a competitive advantage?

With more than 30 percent of L.A. students not graduating from high school and educational reform stuck in neutral, the business community must ask itself: How can we build a future work force capable of competing with strong emerging economies such as China and India?

It is becoming increasingly evident that efforts to prepare children for school and the global job market must begin before kindergarten. Studies tell us that a high-quality early education is an effective way of erasing the substantial school readiness gap that exists in many schools, one that will likely affect our future work force.

James J. Heckman, a University of Chicago professor and Nobel laureate in economics, perhaps explained it best when he stated: “The best way to improve the American work force of the 21st century is to invest in early education, to ensure that even the most disadvantaged children have the opportunity to succeed alongside their more advantaged peers.”

Today’s achievement gap should concern all of us, because research shows children who begin school less prepared to learn often fall further behind as they move through their educational and working lives.

According to the College Board, the United States ranks 12th among 36 developed countries in college graduation rate. The United States also ranks second out of 27 countries in the percentage of students (more than 40 percent) who enter college and leave without earning a degree. That should be unacceptable to anyone who wants America to maintain its status as the world’s preeminent economic power.

Furthermore, this is troublesome news to the business community. It is estimated that 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs in America will require some postsecondary education.

Why should the business community care about early education? Scientific studies tell us a child develops 90 percent of his or her adult-size brain during the first five years. Furthermore, about 50 percent of what we know in life, we learn by age 5.

Universal preschool

Despite such glaring facts, less than half of 4-year-olds in Los Angeles County attend preschool, mainly due to a lack of spaces and affordability. Additionally, universal preschool is available in places like Great Britain, Scandinavia and France, but not in the United States.

While China is investing money to make preschool more widely available as part of a push to develop a highly skilled workforce, 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.

No matter where you stand in the political spectrum on this issue, one fact is clear: The future of Los Angeles, our state and the nation as a whole will largely depend on our children’s ability to compete in an unforgiving global economy. That is why efforts need to be made to expand early education programs.

Perhaps Donna Shalala, President Clinton’s secretary of health and human services, said it best.

“Early education is most certainly the next wave of education reform,” she noted. “The U.S. is simply playing catch-up with the rest of the industrialized world. Most advanced nations already invest in early education. Indeed, there is already a deep appreciation worldwide among global business leaders of the relationship between investment in early education and the quality of the work force.”

It is also important to note that expanding early education efforts locally also will benefit the regional economy as a whole, not just children. Los Angeles County’s early care and education industry directly employs more than 65,000 people and generates more than $1.9 billion annually for the local economy, according to a 2008 study by the Los Angeles County Child Care Planning Committee, the City of Los Angeles Workforce Investment Board and Los Angeles Universal Preschool.

As you can see, the facts are clear, and the research is evident: Early childhood education is an investment we can ill afford not to make.

Celia C. Ayala is chief executive of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which funds high-quality preschool programs across Los Angeles County.

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