If you want to talk growth spurt in a youngster, don’t wait until age 11 or 13. Look inside his head. There, at 700 connections a second, the neural pathways that constitute the brain are exploding from birth.

New research that has documented and given new insights into brain development has an important economic implication that communities such as Baton Rouge should not ignore.

“Early childhood education” is the mantra of economist Rob Grunewald of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, where he and others are showing how much of future human capacity grows in the mind during the very earliest years.

And to borrow an old phrase, the boy is father to the man: The young person who benefits from high-quality child care at an early age is a more productive citizen and substantially less likely to become a burden on society through crime or other disorderly behavior as an adult.

Grunewald told business and education leaders gathered together by Baton Rouge’s Academic Distinction Fund that the business phrase “return on investment” ought to be part of the discussion in education and social services.

Not only do children exposed to learning and activity at an early age have improved school performance, but they tend to have higher earnings over the course of a lifetime, Grunewald said.

One key study in Chicago tracked the results over 40 years of a group of children given scholarships to a highly regarded center for early childhood education. The returns on that investment were multiples of the cost, Grunewald said.

“In business, those rates of return don’t stay long on the table,” he said.

However, there is a drag on investment in early childhood education: short political attention spans of adults.

“The lion’s share of that return comes down the road,” Grunewald said, rather than in the four-year cycle of a typical elected official.

The quality of the nation’s future workforce can be altered through investment in early childhood, Grunewald said, adding that “you get that money back.”

His message is deeply relevant to Louisiana’s dishearteningly long quest to get off the bottom of national rankings for education and economic growth.

Our population is our economy.

While there can and should be a debate about whether Louisiana is doing enough in this area, there is no question that there are some good signs.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and his two predecessors have pushed to increase funding in pre-kindergarten programs. Prodded by the Council for a Better Louisiana and others, a system of rankings gives tax incentives for early childhood centers to improve their staff training and educational components. More efforts are being made locally to improve offerings of Head Start and other existing programs. In Baton Rouge and its suburbs, voters several times have approved property tax dollars for libraries, a key part of any communitywide educational effort.

Still, as Grunewald’s presentation underscored, the issues at stake are huge. “One of the key ingredients of economic growth is the quality and quantity of the workforce,” Grunewald said, and public investment can make a difference in its quality.

He was asked about a child in a poor family, of which God knows we have many in Baton Rouge. “That,” Grunewald said, “is the high-return kid.”

The high-return kid.

Baton Rouge needs more of those, the child who gets the benefit of an intellectually nurturing environment at the earliest age.