The day a child living in poverty turns four, he or she is already 18 months behind normal cognitive development. Odds are, that child will never catch up.

Coming this month is an opportunity to change those odds. It’s a Race to the Top grant program aimed at building effective early childhood systems.

Investing in early childhood is long overdue. School-based programs come after the damage has been done. They are far more costly and less effective than programs that tackle learning problems at their root. No wonder that one school reform movement after another has failed to close the achievement gap.

Meanwhile early childhood programs have amassed an awesome, underappreciated track record.

Parent-home visiting programs, for example, literally erase the achievement gap. Low-income children from these programs grow up to graduate at rate actually higher than the overall average.

Likewise, long-term studies show that quality pre-school programs change children’s entire life paths, resulting in less special education . . . higher graduation rates . . . higher incomes, home ownership, and taxes . . . less welfare and crime.

Yet investment in children’s early years has been anemic.

One obstacle is the patchwork nature of early childhood services, delivered through a mind-boggling array of separate agencies and providers. We need instead a coordinated system, so children get the services they need and funds are spent wisely.

The Race to the Top program gives New York the opportunity to build such a system. The program will provide grants to states that develop plans for coordinating services and maintaining standards. Governor Cuomo has announced that New York will enter the competition.

The effort deserves our support, because a better educated workforce is critical to economic competitiveness.

That’s why business groups are leading the push for early intervention. One organization, America’s Edge, maintains a website filled with eye-opening information. (Other links can be found on the Rauch Foundation’s Facebook page.)

I wish more people knew about this issue. But it’s like so many of our most serious problems, from energy to land use. Instead of embracing smart new ideas, we keep doing the same old thing.

It’s time to start changing that scenario. Extensive research shows that investing in early childhood is a smart move. Let’s move it.