By Carl M. Buchholz

The path to educational success for children begins even before the doors open on the first day of kindergarten. There is already strong agreement across partisan and geographic lines that expanding access to high-quality prekindergarten is a smart, cost-effective way to ensure all children enter school ready to learn. Now the time has come for action.

Parents and educators see pre-K as an effective tool to improve school readiness. Law-enforcement officials see it as a strategy to help at-risk youths avoid the criminal justice system. Business leaders know quality pre-K is a smart investment with proven benefits.

Despite all of this support, only one in six of Pennsylvania's 3- and 4-year-olds benefit from publicly funded pre-K, leaving more than 200,000 young learners missing out statewide, including 27,401 in Philadelphia. We need to improve on this sad statistic.

If we want to build a stronger Pennsylvania, increased access to pre-K must be a building block for that foundation. That's why I have joined the statewide Pre-K for PA Leadership Council, which is made up of more than 100 leading voices in business, education, law enforcement, civic engagement, and even the military who recognize the many benefits of high-quality pre-K. The nonpartisan organization is working to make pre-K accessible to every 3- and 4-year-old in the state.

Pre-K is an educational, moral, and societal imperative essential to our economic success. A fiscal analysis by the Leadership Council found that if Pennsylvania funded pre-K for all 3- and 4-year olds, the commonwealth's investment would generate $800 million in additional goods and services and create nearly 28,000 jobs statewide in the short term. The long-term benefits are even greater, with every dollar invested in pre-K returning up to $17 in savings and benefits.

As support for this vision grows in this region and in communities across Pennsylvania, it is encouraging to see that so many of the state's newly elected and reelected leaders are committed to strengthening our schools and early-learning facilities as a way to elevate our workforce and communities. Now that commitment needs to turn into action.

When Gov.-Elect Tom Wolf announced his education transition cochairs recently, the Leadership Council urged the newly formed team to focus on early learning as it crafts an education policy.

When the new Democratic governor and Republican-led majority in the state legislature return to Harrisburg in January, I hope they will put partisan politics aside and work together to ensure an investment in pre-K is at the top of Pennsylvania's priorities. We know it's a smart investment that pays off for every Pennsylvanian, and we can't defer such an important investment any longer.

Carl M. Buchholz is a board member and public policy committee chair of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. advocate@uwgpsnj.org