In this 2011 photo, 4- and 5-year-old preschool students listen to their teacher, Angie Clark, read at a Des Moines Iowa elementary school. (Steve Pope/AP)

More than 300 national business leaders signed an open letter in support of greater federal investment in preschool that was sent to Congress and the White House this week and presented Thursday to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The letter reflects a growing campaign to reframe preschool not just as an education issue but as a matter of workforce training and economic development.

Many policymakers and business leaders now talk about early childhood education in economic terms, as offering a good return on investment.

“Currently, more than 90 percent of our education dollars are spent after age 5, yet 85 percent of a child’s core brain structure is developed before age 5. This should have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with good business decisions,” said James M. Zimmerman, retired CEO of Macy’s Inc., in a news statement. Zimmerman is one of eight current or former executives who met with Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on Thursday.

The executives and organizations that signed the letter, including the retired chairmen and chief executives of PepsiCo and Proctor & Gamble, agreed on several priorities for preschool expansion, many of which resonate with what President Obama highlighted in his own proposal this February.

They said new policies should start with prenatal care and extend through kindergarten; prioritize children from low- and moderate-income families; give parents options in the public and private sectors; encourage higher quality standards; and closely track the outcomes of different programs.

There is less agreement about how preschool should be paid for, said Sara Watson, the director of ReadyNation, which is organizing the business community to advocate for early childhood education investments. “There is no magic financing solution that is going to make everyone happy,” she said.

The leaders who signed the letter said that a broad expansion will need to include some new funding as well as a reallocation of existing tax dollars.

“Ultimately, we need to put more resources into quality, evidence-based early childhood programs,“ Zimmerman said in a statement