As states across the country confront unprecedented budget deficits, early education is under fire. In Iowa, some legislators proposed eliminating voluntary, universal preschool four-year olds, arguing that there isn’t sufficient data to justify the program.

A mountain of research points to a solid payoff from quality early learning—including better outcomes in education, health, personal productivity and economic vitality. But many legislators remain skeptical about the value of state early learning investments.

Unfortunately, state education department often aren’t able to show the impact of these programs. Iowa doesn’t have a data system that collects detailed information about the students enrolled in the state preschool program. And student assessments in both preschool and kindergarten aren’t compared at the state level to show how much progress children made.

What to do? In Iowa, advocates are fighting to preserve preschool. They’re making the case that savings from slashing early education today will be more than cancelled out by increased costs in the future.

But in the long run, states must develop appropriate data and assessment systems to closely track the impact of state early leaning investments. The Early Learning Challenge Fund was aimed squarely at providing incentives to do just that. When Congress takes up both the FY11 and FY12 budgets, funding for the Early Learning Challenge Fund should be a top priority.