During this fall’s election campaign season, nearly every candidate for office talked about growing our economy and addressing the challenges we have as a state: opioids, worker shortages, skills gaps, a rapidly aging population.

I believe that investing in high-quality early childhood education and care is a particularly effective tool in the toolbox of elected officials — one that can squarely address many or all of the key challenges that lawmakers seek to solve.

Maine has a significant opportunity to boost our rural state’s economy for years to come during the next few months, as our state’s new leaders take office and our state government comes to grips with solving our most pressing problems.

I’ve been a business executive for quite a while, and I’ve spent years contemplating the best ways to enhance Maine’s economic development. One of my most important conclusions is that investing in high-quality early childhood education is essential for Maine’s future economic growth.

In particular, these investments can see a massive return from making sure our kids have access to the high-quality early education they need. I’m talking about investing in programs like Head Start, Elevate Maine, pre-kindergarten and high-quality child care — programs that have a proven track record of returning dividends to our community.

In fact, the national business-leader group ReadyNation estimates that the monetary return on investment for each child served is about $30,000. This investment will pay immediate and long-term dividends. Few other economic development programs boast that same record of results.

In other words, this is the one of the most important investments our state can make.

Strengthening early childhood education for kids in need yields a broad range of positive economic results, not to mention health improvements and lower likelihood of future criminal activity.

What’s more, evidence shows that kids who have the benefit of high-quality early education are more likely to start school healthier. They are more ready to learn, and to go on to become better, more highly skilled workers.

Access to high-quality early childhood education particularly helps low-income and high-risk kids close the achievement gap between them and their more-advantaged peers.

Meanwhile, access to high-quality child care is an important factor in ensuring we help as many young parents as possible to have the ability to stay in Maine and work. We know that many folks have kids and move out of state, where job opportunities and health care access are easier to find. Changing that dynamic will help young people stay in Maine right now.

We also know that our state has a serious lack of workers and a large skills gap. If you’re concerned about workforce development, investing in early childhood education is an effective method of addressing the problem. High-quality early learning programs will help get more young Mainers and their parents into the workforce.

Therefore, I ask that Maine’s incoming elected officials take an aggressive approach when considering investing in pre-kindergarten and Head Start, and work to make sure more high-quality child care is available to a greater number of working parents.

The next governor and Legislature need to know that we must capitalize on this opportunity. Maine’s new leaders need to address the state’s most pressing economic growth issues by investing in high-quality early childhood education.

Jim Clair is owner of The Clair Group of Companies.

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