Utah has one of the fastest-growing populations of young families in the nation. More than 139,000 preschool children need care outside the home because both parents must work to make ends meet. Utah's network of early-care and education resources has not kept pace with the needs of these families. There is a severe shortage of qualified and adequately paid staff. Utah child-care workers earn about $7.90 an hour, putting them on par with parking-lot attendants, resulting in high turnover rates and an undereducated work force.

The affordability of child care puts a tremendous burden on working families. Parents pay more per year for a preschooler to attend average care than they would for tuition to Utah's state colleges and universities. Yet the state subsidizes higher education at a much higher rate than early education. Because care is so expensive, parents often settle for less costly care that offers limited child-development opportunities. These decisions affect whether children enter school ready to learn and their future success as well.

A recent review of Utah's early-childhood system found that Utah is lagging far behind other states in the infrastructure needed to support its working families with young children.

Why should the average Utah resident be concerned?

Today we know a great deal about what children need in order to be successful. Research has unequivocally confirmed that early education makes a huge and lasting difference for young children, for families, for the workplace and for society. These benefits translate into greater school success all through high school, including higher rates of grade promotion and graduation.

That's why it's important for Utah to support access to affordable, high-quality early care and learning. When communities support working parents by investing in stable, high-quality care they also help to ensure that a child's basic foundation will be durable. These early investments reap dividends as child development translates into economic development later on. A child with a solid foundation becomes part of a solid community and contributes to our society.

The start of a new school year is a good time to reflect on the state of Utah's children. There is much to celebrate about how well Utah children are doing. According to the 2008 national Kids Count Data Book, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Utah ranks 5th highest in the country for the overall well-being of its children. Utah understands that in order to sustain its prosperity, children need the opportunity to develop intellectually, socially and emotionally to fulfill their role as future citizens and stewards.

We commend the recent efforts of lawmakers to increase the number of qualified and adequately compensated teachers. We hope they will also support the investments needed to narrow the gap between the needs of Utah's families and the current state of our early-care and education system. Early learning experiences that help build resilience, social skills and the ability to keep learning will have social and economic benefits for everyone — children, parents, employers and society as a whole — both now and in the future.

Karen Crompton is the executive director of Voices for Utah Children.