Business leaders are often told that the “keys to success” are things like branding, synergy and risk management. While those are important, I believe the real key to future success – for Montana businesses and for our economy – is high-quality pre-kindergarten. Early learning programs are essential to building a successful workforce for the future and stimulating our economy today.

A future workforce has to have the skills and training that our businesses need. Jobs increasingly require higher levels of education and 62 percent of jobs in Montana will require post-secondary education by 2018. Careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will require even further training and these jobs are projected to grow rapidly – in fact, by that same year we expect 23,000 more STEM jobs here in Montana.

Eighteen percent of our students are not graduating high school on time and of those who do graduate, only 29 percent meet college- and career-readiness benchmarks in the core academic areas: math, reading, science and English. These problems begin well before our students walk through the doors of high school – 54 percent of eighth graders are below grade level in math and 64 percent of fourth graders read below grade level.

The best solution is simple. A report from America’s Edge, a group of business leaders from around the country, shows that children who participate in quality preschool are 44 percent more likely to graduate high school; 74 percent more likely to hold a skilled job; will make 36 percent more in earnings as adults, and are four times more likely to have earned a four-year degree by age 30. Investing in early learning programs sets our kids on the right path for academic and career success.

High-quality preschool does more than just create strong future employees – it also provides a boost to our economy right now. For every $1 that we invest in early care and education, a total of $1.61 is generated in sales of local goods and services. This outperforms investments in a variety of other economic sectors, such as mining, oil and gas, construction, transportation and utilities.

In addition to generating economic activity, early learning programs save businesses money by helping working families. This is significant when you consider that 65 percent of children in Montana have both or their only parent in the workforce. The average working parent in America actually misses five to nine days of work each year due to child care problems – costing U.S. businesses $3 billion a year. Early care and learning programs translate to increased attendance, productivity and retention for employees and millions of dollars in savings for Montana’s businesses.

We have an opportunity to improve this through a newly proposed state-federal partnership that would give Montana and other states funding to create, strengthen and expand quality pre-K for 4-year-olds and provide high-quality childcare for children from birth through age 3. The proposal puts states in the driver’s seat when it comes to developing the programs, and it would help Montana create a quality preschool program to serve our working families.

High-quality preschool is the key to success in business and it is one that will open many doors: a stronger workforce, increased economic activity and savings for our businesses. Let’s invest in what works.

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

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I disagree. School districts barely have enough money to provide K-12 education. Montana now has added all day kindergarten to its offerings. In Missoula this added the demand of 13 classrooms, Because the district had closed so many schools and just sold Roosevelt they decided to build additions to many schools.

We just heard in February that our school teachers do not have the necessary books and supplies for basic classes.

Many people believe that learning to read LATER rather than EARLIER is better for children. This is the philosophy of the Waldorf Schools, a popular private school movement out of Austria.

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