This era of limited resources demands we set societal priorities and optimize our interventions to solve problems, because not every good idea can be pursued.

The challenges of academic malaise, crime, prison costs, welfare dependence, breaking the cycle of poverty and reinvigorating the economy share a common solution -- quality early childhood education. The pursuit of early learning ties to so many other longer-term benefits that it's a logical priority choice.

The reasons are grounded in decades of long-term research from distinguished academics at such renowned institutions as Harvard University and the University of Chicago. Much of the brain's architecture for cognitive, social and emotional capabilities is built from birth through age 5, and quality early learning assures a strong foundation.

Studies show children who experience high-quality early childhood education enter school ready to learn. Pennsylvania's array of high-quality early learning options includes Pre-K Counts, early childhood learning centers with 3 or 4 stars from the Pennsylvania Keystone STARS quality rating system, and Head Start Supplemental Assistance.

After attending one of these programs in 2011-12, the percentage of preschoolers with age-appropriate language, math and social skills more than doubled, according to the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning. The OMG Center for Collaborative Learning found that Pennsylvania school districts serving the largest numbers of children from high-quality prekindergarten programs had lower rates of children needing special education in kindergarten.

With a foundation of quality early learning, children are more likely to succeed academically, graduate from high school, obtain higher education or career training, and hold down good, family-sustaining jobs, contributing to society.

Without quality early childhood education, disadvantaged children risk entering school up to 18 months behind their peers in development. Most children reading well below grade level at the end of fourth grade will not graduate from high school. They are more likely to drop out of high school and engage in risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol use. They are also more likely to need public assistance or get involved in the criminal justice system.

By preparing young children for academic and workplace success, every dollar invested in high-quality early education returns up to $2.17 in local spending in Pennsylvania, through direct employment and through the multiplier effect of purchases of goods and services. In the long term, University of Chicago economist Dr. James Heckman has found a 7 percent to 10 percent return on investment, based on increased school and career achievement, and reduced costs for remedial education, health care, and criminal justice.

The workforce is also strengthened, especially in the STEM areas -- the science, technology, engineering and mathematics capabilities demanded in 21-century jobs. High-quality early childhood education cultivates and helps sustain children's innate curiosity, creativity, collaboration and problem-solving skills -- the same skills that employers will demand. The U.S. Department of Commerce expects STEM jobs to grow by 17 percent in the next 10 years, but too few qualified workers to fill them.

Here in York County, our community has long been committed to building a strong network of high-quality early learning opportunities. Still, the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning reports that nearly two out of three young children live in economically disadvantaged families, and only one young child in four participates in high-quality publicly funded early childhood education.

This shows the gap that investments in quality early learning can bridge. Stronger investments today help prepare children for school and boost their chances of graduating. Our commitments also make today's young children the desirable workers, entrepreneurs and community leaders of tomorrow. This issue has broad support from the business community not only in Pennsylvania but across the country.

I applaud and support the meaningful investments made by Gov. Tom Corbett and the state Legislature in the recently passed 2013-14 state budget, and I agree that more children, especially those at risk of failing in school, should have the opportunity to experience high-quality early learning programs.

The challenges we face in society today include breaking the cycle of poverty, reducing crime and raising the level of academic achievement in all schools. We didn't arrive at these difficulties overnight, and confronting these entrenched challenges requires long-term thinking. Investing in quality early childhood education is a verifiable step that will begin the journey toward economic stability and stronger communities.

-- Bruce Bartels is presi dent of WellSpan Health and a member of the Pennsylva nia Early Learning Investment Commission.