This article originally appeared on on June 7, 2016.

Brian Bucher is the PNC regional President and a member of Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force.

As parents and caregivers, few of us would consider ourselves experts on child brain development. But decades of research has established the critical importance of children learning before they reach school age and the role we have in shaping their progress.

During the first five years of life, children begin to learn vocabulary, language, socio-emotional behavior, literacy, math, spatial reasoning, executive function and self-regulation. Although the impact of all this learning and development is nearly invisible to the eye, the impact on children is immeasurable and often determines their chances of success in school and life.

As a company focused on community and economic development, we understand the importance of the right start in a child’s life. Investments in our youngest students are warranted given studies that show as much as a $16 benefit for every dollar invested.

Given this return on investment, providing support for early education is more prudent than waiting until high school when issues are often more difficult to remediate. As resources in our state grow tighter and more demands are made on them, we have to be wise about our investment decisions. After all, it is far easier to prevent the achievement gap than to try to close it.

And yet, educators and parents cannot be the only ones ensuring that young children get the right start to life. Public officials and the private sector must join them to convene the necessary resources. PNC has its own $350 million initiative in early childhood education which recently celebrated its 12th year. Non-profits and companies like ours have stepped up their investments in school readiness and are advocating on all levels for increased educational support for this important age group.

In addition to my role as Regional President for PNC, I also serve on the Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force. This group has recommended a ten-year timeline for expanding access to Alabama’s nationally-recognized First Class Pre-K program to all families that wish to enroll their children by the year 2023.

On behalf of PNC and the entire ASRA Pre-K Task Force, I wish to thank our state lawmakers and Governor Bentley for their steadfast support of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program. Because of their leadership, expansion of this program via the education budget has risen from $19 million to $64.5 million over the past four budgetary years. Therefore, access to First Class Pre-K by our state’s four year-olds is expected to grow from the current level of 20 percent to 25 percent in the upcoming 2016-17 school year. That means that 1 in 4 four-year-olds in our state will have access, and that is truly progress worth celebrating.

Recently, the Governor and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education just announced 155 new First Class Pre-K grants to further expand the program.

Equally as important is the fact that Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program was once again recognized by the National Institute for Early Education Research for meeting all 10 of NIEER’s research-based quality standards. This is the 10th year in a row that Alabama has received this number-one-in-the-nation recognition for pre-k quality, and the focus on quality is paying off. The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) analyzed student achievement through the sixth grade and found that First Class Pre-K alumni consistently outperformed their peers in reading and math. PARCA also found that First Class Pre-K closed the achievement gap for participating low-income students by 25 percent.

With the support of our elected officials, businesses leaders and community advocates across the state, we can do more to make a significant difference.

Please join us in thanking Alabama’s elected officials and Governor Bentley for their leadership in once again approving the $16 million increase to our state’s Education Trust Fund to expand First Class Pre-K. Through their efforts and those of our many business, community and civic leaders, Alabama’s next generation moves closer to achieving success in school and in life.

Alabama is included in PNC Grow Up Great, the company’s $350 million, multi-year initiative to support early childhood education.

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