As Montana’s economy continues to recover, now is the time to ask: Do we have the education infrastructure needed to ensure long-term economic security?

Working at a school employees’ credit union here in Missoula, I look at numbers every day and in Montana, the numbers are not where we want. Twenty-four percent of our high school students do not graduate on time, 54 percent of our eighth-graders are below grade level in math and 64 percent of fourth-graders read below grade level. Nationally, 60 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds do not have the basic skills needed to enter kindergarten, such as counting to 10 and recognizing letters in the alphabet.

These statistics turn into staggering losses for our businesses and our economy. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a single class of high-school dropouts will make $335 billion less over their lifetime than they would have as graduates. That translates into less spending power, lower productivity and less contribution to the tax base. These are hardly the numbers upon which sustained economic growth can be built.

But we can turn these numbers around and boost our local economies through a way that may surprise you: invest in high-quality early care and education.

A report from the business leaders group America’s Edge shows that early learning investments will actually boost sales of goods and services from Montana businesses and create thousands of jobs. In fact, for every $1 invested in quality early learning, a total of $1.61 will be generated in sales from our state’s businesses. That is a level of performance that is as high as or higher than investments in manufacturing, construction and transportation.

Investments in early-learning programs also help build a long-term foundation for future economic growth, ensuring that we have a well-prepared work force down the line with the skills businesses need in our technology and innovation-driven world. In fact, children who participate in high-quality early-learning programs are up to 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school, 22 percent more likely to be employed and can have median earnings as adults that are 36 percent higher than those who did not participate in these valuable programs. In addition, children who participate in quality early learning programs can increase pre-reading skills by 52 percent and pre-math skills by 21 percent.

Studies also show that high-quality early learning programs can more than pay for themselves in long-term benefits, generating as much as $16 for every $1 invested. The reason – children who participate in these programs grow up to become better educated and more productive workers with far less remedial education or criminal costs to society. That is a return on investment that cannot be matched by almost any other public investment.

I applaud our congressional delegation for increasing funding in 2012 for these critical programs. We must now protect that funding, even in these tough budgetary times. Congress has an opportunity to improve the quality of, and access to, early care and education through funding for the Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant programs. Thanks to Sen. Max Baucus, Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg for their past support, and I look forward to that continuing.

We have limited dollars to spend, so we must focus on investments that make the most out of every dollar we have. With a proven track record of both short- and long-term economic benefits, investing in quality early learning meets that test.

Leslie Womack of Missoula is president of the Montana Educators’ Credit Union.

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