CHARLESTON, W.Va. — During the last legislative session, the bill that took up the most time and generated the most controversy was Gov. Tomblin’s education bill. But to the credit of all parties, one key provision of the bill wasn’t controversial at all. It was probably the best part, and although it hasn’t received a whole lot of attention, its effects will be felt for years to come. I’m talking about a major expansion of early childhood education, an area in which West Virginia has already made significant progress. The bill takes it to a new level by requiring county school boards to offer full-day programs for 4-year-olds five days a week by school year 2016-2017. Since then, the governor has appointed an Early Childhood Planning Task Force to look for ways of improving health, development and education readiness of children from birth to age 5. Why is that a big deal? According to the Center for American Progress, “Studies show that high-quality early childhood education can significantly improve a child’s preliteracy, prewriting, and premath skills. Children in Tennessee’s state-funded pre-K program, for example, saw a 75 percent improvement in letter-word identification, a 152 percent improvement in oral comprehension, a 176 percent improvement in picture vocabulary and a 63 percent improvement in quantitative concepts, compared to children not in pre-K.” The New York Times reports that studies by James Heckman, an economist and Nobel laureate who specializes in the economics of human development, indicate that “investment in early education of disadvantaged children pays extremely high returns down the road. It improves not only their cognitive abilities but also crucial behavior traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem. Studies that have followed children through their adult lives confirm enormous payoffs for these investments, whether measured in improved success in college, higher income or even lower incarceration rates.” Studies conducted for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank by economists R. Grunewald and A. Rolnick compared the economic development payoff for government subsidies for private businesses unfavorably with investments in children. They noted that “One of the most productive investments that is rarely viewed as economic development is early childhood development (ECD).” In 2005, Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research investigated the impact of early childhood education and found a fourfold positive impact. First, the children benefit, “increasing their capacity to be more productive workers and citizens.” Second, these programs allow parents and caregivers to work and boost income. Third, these programs themselves create jobs and generate economic activity. Finally, “early childhood development produces returns on investment to public and private money which is in excess of returns of other economic development programs.” This kind of investment can help address two goals that don’t always go hand in hand: increasing economic development while also reducing inequality. Early investment in children can reduce the impact of what Heckman calls the lottery of birth, i.e. the huge and growing degree to which parents’ socio-economic status predicts that of their children. Since inequality begins very early in life, its impact can be reduced by intervening there as well. He concludes: “The logic is quite clear from an economic standpoint. We can invest early to close disparities and prevent achievement gaps, or we can pay to remediate disparities when they are harder and more expensive to close. Either way we are going to pay…But, there is an important difference between the two approaches. Investing early allows us to shape the future; investing later chains us to fixing the missed opportunities of the past. “Controlling our destiny is more in keeping with the American spirit.” So, congratulations, West Virginia, for getting something else right. That’s not bad for a 150-year-old. Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project, is a Gazette contributing columnist.