Editor's note

Every Monday we offer pro/con pieces from the McClatchy-Tribune News Service to give readers a broad view of issues.

President Obama's call for universal pre-kindergarten is both great news and a great opportunity.

If passed it will provide many more children with high-quality early education.

Providing universal pre-K means making an economic investment, an educational investment and a moral investment in our children and our society. Other countries have already made such investments. We should wait no longer.

Since the mid-1980s, studies have shown the economic returns on early childhood education. More recent studies continue to show long-term benefits for participants now well into their 40s. These studies are getting attention perhaps because the public is now more receptive or perhaps because many were conducted by James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics from the University of Chicago.

Early-education programs work. They are an investment in a long-term economic return that benefits the participants, their families and our economy. An economic investment is an important part of the argument for universal pre-K, yet it is only part of the story - an important part, but only part.

Universal pre-K provides a sound beginning to education as the cornerstone for our democratic society. Focusing primarily on the economic returns of early education diminishes its full value.

While early education can prepare a better workforce, which can lead to a stronger economy, this does not necessarily guarantee a stronger citizenry, which can guarantee a stronger democracy.

I became an early-childhood educator nearly 30 years ago. No one in the field then, and for that matter, few in the field now, considered themselves in workforce preparation.

Our goal, then and now, was to create educational programs and experiences that nurtured children's minds, hearts, bodies and souls - in short, their well-being. Quality early-education programs do this and more.

Through quality programs that focus on young children's intellectual, social, moral, affective and physical development, they gain the knowledge, skills and abilities for becoming engaged citizens.

Engaged citizens contribute to our economy but they also are essential for our democratic process.

Aside from the fact that many other advanced countries provide universal pre-K and the U.S. does not, there are the moral investments and the moral arguments: Providing universal pre-K is the right and just thing to do.

To deny early education to the young children who are most in need of such programs and who will benefit the most from them is to deny them the opportunity to flourish.

Cary A. Buzzelli is a professor of early-childhood education in the School of Education at Indiana University-Bloomington.