In the 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama made clear that investing in education—K-12 and postsecondary—is a direct path to economic recovery. And while the President is correct—investing in education is one of the smartest things we can do for our country—we know that starting to invest in kindergarten is too late.

Over a lifetime, investments in early childhood education generate big returns for all of us. According to Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman, it’s one of the most cost efficient approaches to increasing education, health and economic outcomes, and lowering the costs of remediation and social dependence. During the course of their lives, children who experience quality early learning programs will be healthier, more self-sufficient and less likely to enter the criminal justice system. Those real cost savings add up to as much as a 10 percent annual economic return.

In the coming year, we have real opportunities to make sure that we broaden the way we think about the education continuum in this country. For starters, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) slated for reauthorization, we must include stronger birth to five components, after all; early childhood education is a key building block for achieving our nation’s college- and career-readiness goals.

Congress should think about investing in innovation in terms of early childhood education. The Early Learning Challenge Fund is a legislative opportunity to make a smart, cost-effective investment that will provide short- and long-term educational, social and economic benefits.

And to those who say that Head Start is “spending more money on poor kids,” I say, Head Start and other programs like Early Head Start and the Child Care Development Block Grant provide high-quality early childhood education for 2.5 million American families. We’ve seen the power that Head Start has in shaping the lives of so many successful Americans. These programs build the engine of cognitive and character skills that drive success in school, college, career and life.

The President is right: education is the key to rebuilding America, and that education should start at birth—when it matters most.