Early childhood education is the foundation not only for children’s mental development, but is an indication of the possible contributions they can make to society, says an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank.

“One of the key ingredients of economic growth is the quality and quantity of the workforce,” Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, told the Academic Distinction Fund on Thursday.

Grunewald pointed to numerous studies showing that early childhood education programs have a direct effect in improving a child’s mental capacities. This leads to improved school performance and higher earnings over the course of a lifetime. Also over the long-term, those children exposed to pre-kindergarten education were much less likely to be involved in criminal activity or depend on welfare programs, Grunewald pointed out.

“All of this research means, you get your money back,” he added.

Despite the healthy body of empirical evidence linking early childhood learning with educational achievement and an improved workforce, many states have been slow to respond to this call, say researchers. For one, the results take longer that the standard election cycle.

“The lion’s share of that return comes down the road,” Grunewald said. “And the investment tends to be less tangible.”

Regardless, the idea of investing in early childhood development, from an economic and job creation perspective, seems to be gaining momentum, Grunewald said.

“The business community is getting more and more organized about this,” Grunewald told a room Thursday filled with not only teachers, but business and civic leaders as well.

In 2007, the Louisiana Legislature passed a package of tax credits known as the School Readiness Tax Credits program as part of Quality Start, a program administered through the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services to improve the child-care industry.

Under the program, businesses can earn a refundable state tax credit based on a percentage of “eligible expenses” incurred in support of child-care centers, as well as a refundable state tax credit for donations made to child care resource and referral agencies.

Child-care center staff members can also qualify for tax credits under the program, and parents are also entitled to the tax credit when their children under the age of 6 are enrolled in a Quality Start program.

“These are all tied to accountability,” said Geoffrey Nagle, professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Tulane University and director of the Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. “It’s all tied toward rewarding quality, which is what we want.”

All indications seem to suggest improved early childhood development is needed in Louisiana. A recent 2011 Manufacturing and Logistics National Report by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana gave Louisiana a failing grade in the important area of “human capital.”

Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the author of the report, pointed out that the quality of education children are exposed to — particularly in kindergarten through 12th grade — seemed to greatly influence the quality of worker they become.

“I think 30 years from now, I think 20 years from now, our country will be very different in terms of the investments we make for young children and what opportunities there are,” Nagle said. “We’re beginning to see these changes happen on a federal level and I think the states that approach this aggressively are going to be the leaders in our country in terms of an educated and successful workforce. And the states that lag behind, are going to lag behind in our economy into the next century.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of people demanding that we change directions,” he added.