SALT LAKE CITY — If Utah wants to pick up the slack in its education system, the state should take a hard look at bolstering early childhood education, according to the keynote speaker at a conference hosted Wednesday by the United Way of Salt Lake.

Rob Grunewald, associate economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, told a group of educators and other officials that investing in preschool programs more than pays for itself.

Kids learn more in their first few years, and those who are behind their peers heading into kindergarten tend to stay behind, Grunewald said. Therefore, the payoff for spending on education is greater the younger the recipients are.

He pointed to an early childhood education program in California that brought in four dollars for every one spent, one in New York that yielded five and another in Chicago that garnered seven. The annual rate of return is as much as 20 percent, easily outperforming the stock market, he said.

Referring to a Michigan study, Grunewald said people who participate in preschool programs end up earning more money and are more likely to own a home and open a savings account.

The benefits to society as a whole include fewer arrests, less prison time and reduced spending on welfare. In fact, up to two-thirds of the advantages are felt by people touched only indirectly by such programs.

"That means you don't even have to like children to benefit from these programs," Grunewald said.

He noted there is no regular state funding stream in Utah for preschool education.

Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will include money to continue the state's all-day kindergarten pilot program, which reaches more than 8,000 students in 250 voluntary classes, in his budget proposal to the 2011 Legislature. School districts pick up the tab for another 150 classes.

In a panel discussion, Brenda Van Gorder, director of preschool services for the Granite School District, said a three-year "Early Reading First" grant from the U.S. Department of Education has helped the district make strides in preschool literacy.

The reading program now reaches 65 classrooms in 48 elementary schools across the huge, ethically and economically diverse school district. There are more than 600 children on the waiting list.

Van Gorder said the test scores for kids entering the program at age 3 make them look like they need special education.

However, she said, "These aren't children with disabilities, these are children with a lack of experience." That includes many who don't speak English as a first language but who quickly catch up after two years in the program.

"We are closing that gap (for English language learners)," Van Gorder said.

She recommended that state public education officials push other districts to adopt similar programs. Granite's is affordable — $900 a year for age 3 and $1,400 a year for age 4 — because the district and community partners contribute funds, she said.