President Obama will be delivering his State of the Union address outlining his priorities for the next year in a few weeks. Here’s an open letter to Obama urging him to make early childhood education — an initiative that has proven results — a real priority in his second term. It was written by Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, and Cassie Schwerner, senior vice president of programs at the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

Here’s their open letter:

Dear President Obama,

The next four years present a host of both opportunities and challenges. As you set priorities for that second term, we hope that you will devote real effort to a small but critically important policy issue that would address several of our most pressing problems: early childhood care and education. Investing in better opportunities for young children would draw support from policymakers, advocates and members of the public from both political parties and across a range of ages, races, income levels, ethnicities, and geographic locales.

Our nation is at a crossroads in several key, related areas: education policy, fiscal stability, and job creation. Investment in early childhood care and education presents you with a unique opportunity to build on the solid foundation you have set in early childhood systems-building to improve all three.

Increasing access to high-quality early childhood care and education would help us move towards a stronger, more effective, more equitable, and more internationally competitive education system. Achievement gaps have roots in opportunity gaps, in which students of different racial or socio-economic backgrounds face disparate access to key learning resources and opportunities, thereby hindering their ability to achieve their full potential.

Low-income children, for example, have less access and exposure to early development opportunities, which can leave them unprepared for Kindergarten and in danger of falling further and further behind their better- off peers. Having more children ready for Kindergarten would go a long way towards narrowing stubborn race- and income-based achievement gaps, and would also enable teachers to teach more effectively, since they wouldn’t need to tailor their instruction to such a wide range of student capabilities. Quality early childhood education has also been shown to have especially strong advantages in improving students’ behavioral and emotional well-being, which has positive effects throughout a student’s entire academic career. This investment could also decrease the need for harsher disciplinary actions later.

With vocabulary and kindergarten readiness gaps of a year or more between higher- and lower-income children, decades of rigorous research have demonstrated that investments in early childhood care and education would also produce economic and fiscal returns at the familial, school, community, state, and national levels.

Moreover, these returns grow over time and become inter-generational drivers of increased prosperity. We know what happens when policymakers demand achievement standards without providing the material supports needed to meet them. Our failure to ensure  that all children enjoy enriching, nurturing early childhood experiences also ensures that we continue to drive up K-12 funding costs for special education services, grade repetition for students who are held back, and interventions for students whose emotional and behavioral skills were poorly developed.

We will also pay enormous sums in the form of lost tax revenue for students who drop out of high school or do not enroll in college but who could have achieved more with a better early foundation. And let’s not forget the much larger savings that would accrue to our police, criminal justice, and victim compensation systems.

All told, Professor Robert Lynch, an economist at Washington College, estimates that by 2050 our country could see a total benefit of $315 billion in lower K-12 spending, a higher-income tax base and lower criminal justice costs, simply by providing high-quality early childhood programs to the poorest 25% of three- and four-year-olds in the nation. What’s more, these benefits and savings would accumulate so quickly as to outpace the costs of running such a program within six years. Needless to say, there are few areas of public policy with such strong promise to improve our fiscal situation.

Finally, investing in the early childhood care and education industry has the potential both to improve existing jobs and to create new ones. Enacting policies that support the education and training of early childhood caretakers, educators, and supervisors, as well as center directors, could move hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of low-wage workers toward the middle class.

Creating career ladders and opportunities for higher-wage workers within the field could stabilize a high-turnover workforce, improve cost-effectiveness and increase the return to children and the nation from participation in early childhood education programs. New workers would likely be drawn to this more enticing workforce, and well-targeted public investments could also induce some parents who currently do not enter the workforce for lack of reliable, quality early care to do so.

Your work and that of Secretary Duncan on the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund demonstrates your understanding of the critical importance of this issue in improving education for all of our nation’s children and your commitment to helping states develop coherent systems. Building on what has been learned from those initial efforts, and greatly expanding resources, so that all states can enhance their early childhood care and education systems, would be a logical and smart next step in your second term. It would make you a uniquely effective “education president” and leave a lasting positive legacy.