Is spending on the nation’s littlest learners an investment or an expense?

During a visit to Minnesota this week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a panel of Minnesotans repeatedly and rightly called it an investment. The group — representing business, education, foundations, the military and the faith community — reiterated the strong case that early education benefits all Americans.

The secretary’s visit also helped celebrate the significant commitment Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature made this year to early education.

After cuts in 2003 and years of little progress, in May legislators and Dayton agreed to put $485 million in new funding into education for the next two years. About about a quarter of those funds will be devoted to preschool-aged children: $134 million will provide all-day kindergarten for all kids — with no charge to parents. Currently, free all-day kindergarten is available to slightly more than half of 57,000 eligible children in the state.

And another $40 million of the education package will go to need-based scholarships for state-approved preschools. Scholarships of up to $5,000 per child will help quality providers educate about 8,000 lower-income 3- and 4-year-olds. The state funds will greatly expand a successful pilot program supported by several business groups and foundations. In a research-driven effort, these groups created the Parent Aware rating system that the state will use to direct families to the most effective programs.

Already, Minnesota has received about $45 million through the federal Race to the Top program for its preschool programs. The secretary lauded Minnesota’s efforts and praised the partnership the state has with his federal department to expand educational options for preschoolers.

The initiatives are worthy of praise because they work. Numerous studies have shown that quality preschool makes an enormous difference in student achievement and is one of the best ways to narrow the achievement or opportunity gap between groups of students. When children ages 3 to 6 establish a strong foundation for learning, they are more likely to start kindergarten and first grade ready to learn and to do well throughout their school careers. That in turn benefits society and the economy because they are more likely to graduate from high school, get postsecondary training and become productive, taxpaying citizens.

Minnesota is one of a few states Duncan is visiting to promote President Obama’s $75 billion plan to help expand preschool options over the next 10 years. The administration hopes to offer those funds to states to help create or expand good early education access for the nation’s neediest kids. It is considering a 94-cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund the initiative.

Minnesota would receive about $38 million in the first year that would cover the costs of preschool for just more than 4,700 children at age 4.

When it was pointed out that some members of Congress are reluctant to consider new taxes, Duncan said he and the president are open to considering other ways to fund the federal help to states. But the administration is committed to helping states add capacity to their efforts on early education.

There are good reasons for Duncan and others on the panel to have repeatedly referred to early education as an investment. The data is nearly irrefutable. As a 2011 University of Minnesota study found, the average of $9,000 spent on 18 months of preschool returns to society at least $90,000 in benefits from increased earnings and tax revenues as well as reduced criminal behavior and lower dependence upon government programs.

Although Minnesota has made progress on reaching more preschoolers, it still lags some other states and has more work to do. As Duncan pointed out, even with the new funding, there are still at least 30,000 needy Minnesota students on waiting lists to get into a good program.

The secretary’s visit highlighted the outstanding work that has already been done in Minnesota. And it ought to inspire efforts to build on that progress and expand early education opportunities even further.