By Tom Still

The numbers are hard to dispute: Kids who attend organized but relatively inexpensive pre-school programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to earn more as adults, to stay off welfare and to avoid spending time in jail.

All of that accrues huge dividends for society, with long-term economic paybacks for early childhood education pegged at a minimum of $7 for every $1 spent. Study after study, including some that have meticulously traced pre-school students into middle age, has reached the same conclusion.

So why haven’t more business leaders embraced the merits of early childhood education? Some in Wisconsin and nationally have done so, as was evident during a recent gathering in Madison to discuss national trends and partnership success stories from other states.

Unfortunately, however, some have yet to decide. That’s not because the evidence isn’t persuasive, but more likely because business leaders have been told too many times – by conservatives and liberals alike – that one educational trend or another is the Holy Grail.

Think of all the educational elixirs that have been concocted since “A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. That report, which sounded the alarm bell about shortcomings in American schools, was followed by waves of reform. Private school “choice,” charter schools, tougher high-school graduation requirements, smaller class sizes, literacy exams for teachers, merit pay for teachers, required standardized tests for students, new teacher licensing requirements and much more have followed “A Nation at Risk.”

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, business was told that eliminating the U.S. Department of Education was the right thing to do. That was followed by “No Child Left Behind,” a federal program that critics said intruded on the ability of individual states to run their own schools.

No one expected a single reform to cure what ailed public education in America. In fact, a mix of ideas – public and private – is likely the right recipe. Business leaders have been told too many times, however, that one single reform or another is the panacea. Private school vouchers were supposed to have turned Milwaukee’s underperforming students into mini-Einsteins by now (a conservative idea) and smaller class sizes in Wisconsin’s SAGE program were touted as a salvation for at-risk primary students (a liberal idea).

So forgive business leaders if they don’t rush immediately to the altar of early childhood education, even if the economic case for investing a few bucks in Head Start, four-year-old kindergarten and improved child care programs is appealing.

At the same time, a number of business leaders are standing at the church door, listening intently, and trying to make up their minds about whether to sit in the pews.

An economic case for investing in early childhood education was presented at a May 18 conference on “Building Early Childhood Public-Private Partnerships” in Wisconsin. Participants heard from the president of the Committee for Economic Development, a national business group, as well as the founders of successful early childhood programs in North Carolina and Virginia.

They also heard from three people who may be able to influence Gov. Scott Walker’s thinking on the topic – including two of his Cabinet secretaries.

Eloise Anderson, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, and Paul Jadin, secretary of the state Department of Commerce, both talked about the value of partnerships that can better prepare children in their most formative years. Anderson talked about specific attributes of high-quality early childhood programs, and Jadin spoke of successful examples in Wisconsin.

“Healthy, prepared children equals a prosperous economy,” said Jadin, a former Green Bay mayor and chamber of commerce president. “I’m certainly prepared to argue for a better investment in that regard.”

George Lightbourn, the president of the free-market Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, underscored the connection between a well-educated workforce and a prosperous economy.

“If you have an imbedded base of under-educated people, that becomes your economic base moving forward,” warned Lightbourn, who said WPRI will examine early childhood education in a study to be released later this year.

The business case for societal investments in early childhood education is strong and getting stronger. Evidence that includes neuroscience research demonstrates it’s the least expensive way to create the largest number of productive citizens. And with demographic trends pointing to huge worker shortages, it may be to our advantage in Wisconsin to see that all kids get a smarter start now.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.