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Early childhood care and education before pre-K or kindergarten has not traditionally been considered a public school system priority. But as school leaders tighten their budgets, they would be wise to invest money earlier, when the return on investment is highest.

After all, children who receive high-quality early childhood care and education services are more likely to enter school prepared for academic and social success in kindergarten and beyond.

When children are not ready for kindergarten, schools must use their limited resources on remediation efforts, too often with limited success. School district leaders are facing difficult spending choices, but early childhood care and education is an area to sustain and grow investment, not cut.

Building true school readiness among the youngest learners, when done right, will save school district leaders money and result in stronger outcomes later.

We are seeing this play out now across the nation with literacy rates. With our current, porous early education system, just one in three students achieve key reading benchmarks by fourth grade. State leaders are now redesigning literacy instruction in early grades to address this issue, but we know the foundation for strong reading and writing should begin earlier.

Related: Infants and toddlers in high quality child care seem to reap the benefits longer, research says

The pandemic ravaged an already-fragile early childhood care and education industry. Child care businesses all over the country shut their doors or limited their seats, and teachers fled in droves. Working families, in a desperate search for affordable child care, were forced to settle for low-quality services, leave the labor market entirely or juggle working at home and caring for their children. Their children missed valuable opportunities for learning and development.

Congress helped relieve some of these negative effects with historic investments, including relief dollars to stabilize existing services and expand service access for the families who needed it most, including frontline workers. Louisiana, for example, used their dollars to serve an additional 16,000 children from birth to age three.

But the time to use those dollars is quickly running out. The nation now faces a potential $48 billion child care fiscal cliff, and its impacts could be even more detrimental to children and families. Without this funding, states will be forced to scale back efforts that gave working families access to child care — or scrap those efforts entirely.

As school leaders tighten their budgets, they would be wise to invest money earlier, when the return on investment is highest.

Earlier this year, a handful of governors asked the federal government for more funding, but it’s uncertain whether Congress will step up. If it does not, it will be the responsibility of states and localities to prevent the worst for young learners, working families and the early childhood education workforce.

School district leaders must find dollars in their existing budgets to address the greatest needs and prioritize money for younger students. This task may feel impossible, but school district leaders should not be afraid to get creative: Title I, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Rural Education Achievement Program dollars can all be used for pre-K.

Leaders may also be able to redirect flexible state funding to improve early childhood programs’ quality and access. And locally raised funds could be used to serve more children in early childhood settings.

Summit County in Colorado is doing this well. School district leaders there say they have combined local, state and federal funding to pay for high-quality early childhood care and education services. They have a customer service focus that ensures they are meeting the needs of families.

Without this local commitment, children in Summit would start school behind, requiring the district to work extra hard to catch them up.

But school districts can’t fix school readiness with school-run pre-K alone: They must build and strengthen local partnerships, including with public and nonpublic child care sites, local businesses and foundations.

Related: OPINION: Five lessons on how states can invest in high-quality child care and early education

In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, school district leaders built a strong network of local partners around a vision for a high quality continuum of care and education for children from birth to age 5.

They established a clear picture of the needs of their community, and the way they can change year after year, so they are ready to meet them. If there is an influx of English language learners, for example, they are prepared to quickly open more classrooms to serve these children and their families.

The district equipped classrooms with high-quality instructional materials and provided meaningful coaching and professional development to teachers in all early childhood education settings: As a result, they’ve seen the quality ratings of their local sites increase over time.

Once funding is found and community partnerships are forged, school districts can spend money on what matters most for young learners. High-quality instructional materials and adult-child interactions play a critical role in improving academic and social outcomes.

The Dallas Independent School District, for example, invested in a suite of tools to focus, measure and improve interactions between teachers and children in their youngest classrooms. They are now seeing a climb in literacy results.

School districts have a vested interest in making sure the youngest learners have experiences that prepare them to start kindergarten, achieve key reading and writing benchmarks by third grade and progress through the rest of their academic journeys.

Nasha Patel is a managing director at Watershed Advisors, a consulting firm that helps governments design, implement and scale transformative education plans.

This story about early childhood education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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