As we watch so many Utah kids head back to school, we must remember that a child begins learning long before they ever set foot in a school classroom.

Children are born learning, and by the time they turn 6 they’ve already undergone the most dramatic brain development of their lives. Positive interaction with consistent, nurturing adults maximizes growth at this important time.

When we invest in programs that support the care and education of children, especially from birth through age 5, we all benefit. Particularly for children living in poverty, early care and learning programs provide a critical foundation for economic stability, social mobility and future contributions to the community. A substantial body of empirical research reinforces this fact.

High-quality early education builds the cognitive and lifelong learning skills that children need to excel in school and life, including attentiveness, persistence, impulse control, emotional intelligence and sociability. Children who participate in high-quality early education opportunities are more likely to earn higher wages, live healthier lives, avoid incarceration, raise stronger families and contribute to society. And these benefits extend beyond the individual child to positively uplift the entire family. Access to these opportunities plays an important role in helping parents enter or return to the workforce, complete their education, and provide for their families.

Consider a young pregnant mother in Salt Lake City, with three young children, who was leaving a domestic violence situation. The children were enrolled in Head Start and an Early Head Start Child Care Partnership. The mother qualified for a child care subsidy as well as Early Head Start services to provide a full day of care, enabling her to attend a GED program. When her baby was born, he was enrolled in an Early Head Start program at the same location as her GED classes, which allowed her to breastfeed her baby throughout the day.

In our combined experience studying and developing early childhood policy, we have seen how quality early childhood education builds a strong foundation for young learners and their families.

The importance of high-quality early learning and care has been receiving attention across our state, and even at the national level. Elected officials of all political stripes are working to address the challenges families face in accessing and affording quality child care and early education programs.

Last year, a bipartisan majority in Congress authorized a historic funding increase for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program. This funding helps build high quality, accessible early care and learning programs in communities across Utah, especially in areas of greatest need.

Though this funding increase was a much-needed step, the CCDBG program still only reaches a fraction of the eligible families it was designed to serve. Today, the cost of high-quality child care remains out of reach for too many families in Utah and across the country, especially families from low-income backgrounds.

Voters are looking to their elected officials for help identifying solutions. The majority of voters, regardless of political party, and whether they have their own children or not, consistently and overwhelmingly support these investments.

Right now, Congress is determining funding levels for the next fiscal year. Rep. Ben McAdams has called for an additional increase in CCDBG funding, and we hope that Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney will join the effort to increase investments in vital programs that support the care and education of our children. Utah will reap the benefits for generations to come.

Natalie Brush | Executive Director of the Utah Head Start Association

Natalie Brush is the executive director of the Utah Head Start Association.

Anna Thomas | Senior Policy Analyst at Voices for Utah Children

Anna Thomas is a senior policy analyst at Voices for Utah Children.