The weight of the evidence is too overwhelming to ignore: The way to a better workforce is to invest in high-quality education for children before they get to elementary school.

Take, for example, the report "Tough Choices or Tough Times," published by a commission of business, labor and education leaders. The report said: "Thirty years ago, the United States could lay claim to having 30 percent of the world's population of college students. Today that proportion has fallen to 14 percent and is continuing to fall." It concluded that quality early childhood education is one of the best investments a country can make.

Multiple business groups -- including the Business Roundtable, The Manufacturing Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- agree educating young kids yields a huge return on investment. That includes better high school and college graduation rates, fewer people behind bars, and more youths who qualify intellectually for the armed forces. The title of a report by high-ranking military leaders on mission readiness sums up the problem: "Ready, Willing And Unable To Serve: 75 Percent of Young Adults Cannot Join the Military."

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This near-unanimity prompts us to ask:

Why build smart weapons for the future without ensuring that we will have an adequate number of well-trained troops to operate them?

Can we keep spending $75 billion a year on incarceration? Can't we spend that same amount over 10 years on education, sharply reducing the number of people in prison?

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Can we keep falling further behind competitor nations educationally? China and India have more smart kids than we have kids, more honor students than we have students. Is that acceptable?

Corporate executives should look not only at the long-term return on investment, but also at the more immediate benefits, too. In an economy with so many two-earner families, the search for high-quality child care and early childhood education can negatively impact worker productivity. So, investments in early education can improve recruitment of new workers, reduce tardiness, and create a better work-life balance, leading to more productivity and less turnover.

In this region, the Long Island Association is starting to put early childhood education on its high-priority list. But one business group alone is not enough. Every chief executive and every state and county legislator must focus on this issue. Right now, a boost in spending for early education in the forthcoming Suffolk County budget would bring in more state dollars, through an unwieldy formula similar to a matching fund.

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We need a wake-up call, like the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite sputnik that jolted our nation into thinking about the exploration of space and the need for vastly better science education.

In our own time, we've had no academic sputnik moment, nothing to shake us to our senses -- just a gradual erosion of our excellence. The majority of science and mathematics doctorate recipients on American campuses are foreign nationals, and increasingly, they're taking their degrees back home and competing with us.

Across America, including here on Long Island, we must commit ourselves to investing in our kids, which is also an investment in our communities, our workforce, our companies, and the region's long-term economic vitality. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it well: "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."

We can't afford not to.

Bill Millett is president of Scope View Strategic Advantage, a business consulting firm. Patrick Halpin served as Suffolk County executive from 1988-1991.