BY Sen. Bob Casey

IF CHILDREN learn more before they attend kindergarten, they will earn more years later in the workforce.

By the time a child born into a low-income household turns 3, they've heard 30 million fewer words than a child from a well-off family. When that same child enters school, they're already behind their higher-income peers.

Study after study demonstrates that high-quality prekindergarten not only can help close that gap but also can provide lasting benefits. In the short term, students enter school more prepared and ready for elementary school. Research even shows that high-quality early learning can help double a child's cognitive development.

In the long term, children are less likely to be held back in school, require remedial or special education, engage in criminal activity and utilize the social safety net later in life. They are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, lead healthier, more productive lives, and have higher earnings as adults.

Despite the clear benefits, for thousands of children from low- to moderate-income families in Southeastern Pennsylvania and throughout the commonwealth, access to high-quality early learning is simply not an option. According the National Institute of Early Education Research, only four of every 10 4-year-olds in America are enrolled in public prekindergarten, and almost half of all children served attend programs that were not considered high-quality.

That is why, as the Senate considers the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I have introduced the Strong Start for America's Children Act as an amendment. My legislation would ensure that more than 3 million children in our nation would have access to high-quality early learning, including 93,000 Pennsylvanians. The amendment creates a federal-state partnership to provide access to high-quality public prekindergarten for low- and moderate-income families across the nation. This means that a family of four, earning up to $48,500 a year, would have this opportunity for their children.

These programs are locally driven. They must have qualified teachers, rigorous health and safety standards, small class sizes, and age-appropriate and evidence-based instruction. They also must provide comprehensive services for children.

To responsibly and fully pay for these vital investments, my legislation closes a loophole in our corporate tax code, making it more difficult for American companies to reincorporate overseas for the purpose of lowering their tax bills.

The returns on investment in high-quality early learning are substantial — as high as $17 for every $1 spent. This return on investment will help our kids succeed and help our economy. We can spend upwards of $40,000 a year per person on incarceration and thousands of dollars on drug treatment and special education, or we can spend on average $9,000 a year on high-quality early learning and give children the good start they deserve. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In describing her son's experience in public prekindergarten in Montgomery County, one parent wrote: "[This] program has helped my son tremendously! He came into the program shy and with very little verbal communication. He now talks nonstop and loves learning!"

Let's make sure more kids and families have access to that same strong start in life.

In the decades to come, the strength of our economy in Pennsylvania and across the nation depends on the vitality of our future workforce. If our children learn more now, they will earn more later. That means higher wages and more economic security across our commonwealth and our country.

U.S. Sen. Casey represents Pennsylvania.