desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

If there’s been one regular refrain on the campaign trail this season, it’s been a call for more investment in early childhood education.

There’s a good reason for that. Research shows that providing quality early education for at-risk children has major benefits — for the kids and their parents, for the economy, and for the future. Ninety percent of brain development happens between birth and age 4, yet 35 % of Louisiana kindergartners start school behind and many never catch up to their peers. Employers lose more than $800 million a year in absences and turnover due to lack of childcare. One eye-opening study found an annual return on investment once these kids reach adulthood is 13.7 %.

With such a compelling case, early childhood investment isn’t the sort of issue that draws opposition. It’s a question of whether politicians make it a priority when balanced against other demands. An impressively broad coalition is arguing this election season that leaders should.

It includes the sorts of players you’d expect, such as the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, the United Way and the progressive Louisiana Budget Project. It also includes business groups such as GNO, Inc., the Jefferson Business Council and the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce. The cause has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans candidates alike. Earlier this year, the Legislature allotted about $19 million to create more capacity, the first such investment in years. Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to make further spending on early childhood programs a centerpiece of a second term, and his runoff opponent Eddie Rispone also backs improvements.

That near-unanimity is encouraging, and it underscores the fact that there are diverse arguments for investing, from social equity to economics. GNO, Inc. President Michael Hecht called it a case of “money and morality coming together.”

The coalition pushing for more investment looks something like the broad group that successfully backed criminal justice reform in 2017. In some ways, early childhood education should be an easier sell than sentencing reform because the beneficiaries are more sympathetic to more people, and there’s no risk that one bad apple could create a damaging narrative.

Yet expanding early childhood services will cost money -- $86 million annually to increase access from 22,000 spots to 177,000 in the next decade, the target recommended by the bipartisan Louisiana Early Childhood Care & Education Commission. That’s less of a barrier now that the state is enjoying a surplus after years of shortfalls, but it will nevertheless require a certain level of will.

Still, a poll for the coalition found that 62 percent of likely voters back more funding for this important cause, and candidates up and down the ballot have pledged their support. We should all hold them to it after the votes are counted.