The State of Alabama spends $475 million on its prison system per year. Governor Robert Bentley wants to spend another $800 million to build four new mega-prisons.

Imagine what our state could be like if we devoted part of that $1.2 billion to quality early childhood education instead. Wouldn’t it be smarter to ensure that brain development in a child’s first three years is robust? In 25 years, these children will be our state’s innovators and producers.

Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist, has been researching such possibilities at the University of Chicago. His research concludes that, "Every dollar spent on high quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children delivers a 13% (annual) return on investment." Dr. Heckman and his team analyzed costs and benefits of two child care programs launched in the 1970s and followed participants until age 35. The intensive early education had significant positive impacts on health, IQ, schooling, labor income, and participation in crime.

The upshot – every public dollar invested in safe, quality, research-based early education for poor children produces enormous returns and ultimately saves taxpayers money – a lot of money.

The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham is committed to a strong workforce for Alabama, including more women trained for in-demand jobs. To ensure more women in the workforce, quality childcare is critical. This session, the Alabama Legislature has the opportunity to expand not only today’s skilled workforce but also tomorrow’s.

Already, Alabama has added more than 700 classrooms of Pre-K in the last decade. One quarter of the state’s four-year-olds now have access to this high-quality early education. This enormous achievement is funded in part by a $64 million investment of state dollars, with the governor now requesting another $20 million — a strong showing, yet barely 18% of what we spend annually on prisons.

Looking beyond Pre-K for four-year-olds, commitment to children birth to age 3 remains woefully lacking. For starters, Alabama childcare centers are not required to be regulated if connected to a faith-based institution, leaving thousands of infants and toddlers in the care of license-exempt facilities not inspected for basic health and safety standards. Animal shelters and hair salons have more oversight.

A wealth of research, notably that of Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, has proven the critical importance of quality care and education during the first three years of life. It is beyond question that ages 0-3 are when brain connections essential for language and learning, decision making, and a host of behavioral, intellectual, and emotional functions are forming faster than most any other time in our lives.

As all of this research has shown, the potential within our very youngest children is vast. Few would challenge the importance of funding education for six year olds. Yet we consistently question the expense and fall short when potential returns are the greatest.

Spending on childcare for infants and toddlers also has not kept pace with the needs of Alabama’s working families. In the five-county Greater Birmingham area, there are nearly 2,000 children on waiting lists for childcare subsidies that enable low-income parents to work. At The Women’s Fund, we invest in post-secondary educational programs that move low-income, single mothers into higher-paying jobs. These hardworking women have taken the difficult step of college-level work while raising young children. But without access to affordable childcare, full-time employment is virtually impossible.

We know the essential connection between working mothers, quality childcare, and our future workforce. Let’s start now by:

Passing House Bill 277 requiring minimum health and safety standards and inspections at the 646 childcare centers (43% of centers) that are currently license-exempt and unregulated.Increasing child care subsidies by $5 million and eliminating the childcare subsidy waiting list for low-income working parents.

If we take these steps, we can eliminate billion dollar prisons in the future.

This article originally appeared on AL.com.

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