A colleague at work has a daughter who just turned 3, the time to begin pondering her education. Best to start early. She and her husband have been considering their options:

Flee the District for stellar public schools across the suburban line?

Beg the grandparents for part of the $34,000 a year it takes to send even a young child to one of D.C.'s private schools?

Or hunker down in the District and hope that the public and charter schools continue to improve.

They chose option three, got on a waiting list for a charter and celebrated their daughter's acceptance.

Celebrated? A D.C. public school?

I remember when my friends in the suburbs thought I was committing a form of child abuse by sending my daughters off to kindergarten in D.C. public schools in the 1990s. Now the District finds itself leading the nation in early childhood education. Believe it.

"D.C. enrolls a higher percentage of both 3- and 4-year-olds in public pre-K than do any of the states," the National Institute for Early Education Research reported Monday. "D.C. also provides a higher level of funding per-child than any of the states, at $13,974."

The District is spending $140 million on early childhood education, according to the mayor's office.

Throwing money at educating kids early might just be one of the few government programs that pays off. Study after study shows that children who enter first grade with strong math and reading skills are the ones who excel in elementary school through college.

Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, Stanford education and sociology professor Sean Reardon noted that children of wealthy Americans are more successful in school that their less well-off classmates. Sounds obvious, but Reardon drills down to point out that children of the rich start earlier.

"Maybe," Reardon wrote, "we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children's educational opportunities from the day they are born."

Mayor Vince Gray took that lesson to heart and to the schools. Say what you will about the mayor, he has championed early childhood education from his early days as city council chairman. In 2008, he pushed through a major expansion of universal pre-K programs. Now they are bearing fruit.

About 13,000 of the District's 15,000 kids who are 3 and 4 are enrolled in school programs. The city says 90 percent of 4-year-olds are in public school.

"This isn't some random day care center in someone's home," says mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. "These are programs that teach cognitive skills."

The District wraps poor families into education at two levels: The kids spend their days in safe places and get two square meals a day; their parents get access to adult education and job training.

"It can help the whole family," Ribeiro says.

Gray's early childhood programs can help keep families in the District. When toddlers were ready to go to school, young families would leave.

Now they have reason to stay -- and they are.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.