The stage is now set for a final runoff between gubernatorial, legislative and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education candidates. Now, as voters, we have the opportunity to shift the conversation to a critical issue that has received little attention during this election cycle: the lack of access to, and funding for, early learning for Louisiana’s youngest children.

To candidates and voters in East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes, you should know that only 27 percent of at-risk children ages birth through 4 in your areas have access to any publicly funded early care and education program.

Quality early care and education is one of the best investments a state can make. A child’s most important brain development occurs from birth through age 4. Like a house, once the foundation is laid, it is difficult and expensive to go back and fix it.

Economists have demonstrated that high-quality early education can produce $8 in benefits for every $1 spent. But it is not just about money. It is about a better future for Louisiana. It is about creating a state where there is a reduced need for special education services, a state where fewer children are held back and must repeat a grade, a state where more students stay in high school and graduate from college. These are research results that comes from investments in the early time of life.

Louisiana’s inattention to early learning impacts both families and businesses. Currently, almost half of Louisiana’s children enter kindergarten already behind.

Almost 70 percent of Louisiana’s children age 5 and under spend significant time in child care because they have both parents, or their only parent, working. But the state appropriates zero state general fund dollars on early care and education slots for children under age 4, and, in fact, Louisiana’s Child Care Assistance Program has been cut 60 percent in the last six years.

Louisiana’s Early Childhood Education Act (Act 3) of 2012 has gone largely unfunded, making it unlikely we will ever achieve the reform goals of educational access, accountability and quality care. These stumbling blocks to child development and school readiness damage the current workforce and jeopardize the future growth of skilled workers.

This disregard for children, families and businesses threatens Louisiana’s economic future.

Best practices must shape Louisiana’s pursuit of both school readiness and skilled workforce expansion.

Our state’s young children are the future health of our economy. Early care and education is a proven strategy for achieving this healthy future.

Now is the time for Louisiana’s current and future leaders to support public policies that ensure access to high-quality early care and education. And they must refocus the education conversation to include children beginning at birth.

Candidates, these critical policies necessitate action. Voters, please urge your candidates to support these policies and review the Policy Institute for Children’s 2015 Louisiana Election Alert: Key Questions to Ask and Facts to Know About Early Care and Education for more information.

Melanie Bronfin

executive director, The Policy Institute for Children

New Orleans