In her latest Education Experts blog post, the National Journal’s Fawn Johnson tackles the topic of universal pre-K. First Five Years Fund executive director Kris Perry contributed the following post, emphasizing that education must begin at birth.

My advice to anyone seeking better education, health, social and economic outcomes is to embrace the fact that education starts at birth — not at age 4, not in kindergarten — at birth. Fully developing the potential in our children and guaranteeing a skilled and productive workforce starts the moment a child is born. Our public policy needs to reflect the new knowledge we have about human development, specifically that waiting until age 4 for pre-K learning is too little, too late. The definition of effective early learning must be expanded to encompass birth to age 5, with a distinct focus on the most critical developmental period—the first three years of a child’s life.

Research conducted by University of Chicago Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman shows that investing in early childhood development from birth to age 5 for disadvantaged children is the best way to prevent the achievement gap and maximize later investments in formal schooling, college and job training. Investing from birth is the only way to achieve the 7-10 percent return on investment that early childhood development delivers through better education, health and social outcomes and the reduced need for social spending.

Ongoing federal budget negotiations provide national policymakers with a small window of opportunity to maximize taxpayer money, reduce debt and generate income. Every dollar invested in quality early childhood education pays dividends to children, families and taxpayers for the life of the child. The earlier we start, the less expensive it will be to prepare children for success in life and the more likely that we will have a nation of independent, capable and productive people. Policymakers, such as Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, business leaders, including Chicago entrepreneur and philanthropist J.B. Pritzker and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke strongly support using early childhood investments to drive economic growth.

Investment at birth is supported by a better understanding of how skills are developed. Adult capabilities are built on a foundation of cognitive and character skills that are developed early in a child’s life, with skills begetting skills in a dynamic and complementary fashion. In addition, with new research showing that toddlers are capable of thinking logically and abstractly, it is more important than ever that policymakers focus their efforts on a child’s earliest years for the greatest efficiency and effectiveness.

Early childhood programs can give evidence of whether students will graduate from high school before they even step foot inside a classroom. A study highlighted in Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed” from researcher L. Alan Sroufe found that measures of early parental care, among children as young as 3, could reliably predict high school completion with 77 percent accuracy, illuminating the importance of early learning in shaping better education outcomes. Evaluations of Head Start programs also support the argument for stronger birth to five programs and show that early participation is key to producing better outcomes, with infants and toddlers who receive Early Head Start followed by Head Start or other preschool programs demonstrating cognitive and social gains.

Meanwhile, program models like Educare Schools show policymakers, educators and parents what a comprehensive birth to five system looks like in practice. With all-day, year-round schools providing high quality early education services to disadvantaged children and families in 17 sites across the country, Educare demonstrates that with the right resources and collaboration between public and private partners, the investment in the earliest years really pays off.

According to research conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Educare schools in six cities — Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Omaha, Seattle and Tulsa —showed positive results in preparing disadvantaged children for later academic success. The study revealed that disadvantaged children who enroll in Educare as infants or toddlers entered kindergarten with the same vocabulary and school-readiness skills as their middle-income peers.

Our nation’s future depends on our ability to prepare our children for success. Starting learning at birth will give every child the opportunity to develop to their full potential, strengthen our economy and reduce social spending and deficits. Starting later is too little, too late.