Military strengthened by early learning

Centre Daily Times Op-Ed

November 10, 2014

On this Veterans Day, we honor the fewer than 1 percent of Americans who are ready, willing and able to serve our nation in the armed forces.

This figure may be surprising to some, but it is better understood when you consider that 72 percent of today’s young Pennsylvanians are not eligible for military service because they lack adequate education, are medically or physically unfit or have disqualifying criminal records.

This shocking reality is concerning because it undermines the military’s efforts to recruit high-quality individuals.

We must strategically invest to help young Americans grow up to be educated, healthy and fit to do the work of our nation — as soldiers or civilians.

While trends in education reform come and go, decades of research have shown that high-quality pre-K programs can help to better prepare our children by boosting graduation rates, deterring youth from crime and even reducing obesity rates, all while providing a significant return on investment.

Recognizing the tremendous benefits of early education, the armed forces have developed and invested in exemplary prekindergarten programs.

These high-quality programs emphasize school readiness and are part of a larger comprehensive early-care and education system that all active-duty military families have voluntary access to.

This system has been recognized as a model for the nation in terms of quality and access.

Through the actions of Republicans and Democrats, Pennsylvania has made progress in recent years by expanding funding for high-quality early-learning programs such as Pre-K Counts and Head Start.

Unfortunately, access to these high-quality early-learning programs remains very limited. More than 200,000 — 70 percent — of Pennsylvania’s 3- and 4-year-olds do not have access.

We urge Gov.-elect Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly to work together and follow the military’s lead to enact a multi-year funding plan that better ensures voluntarily access to high-quality pre-K for all of the commonwealth’s 3- and 4-year-olds — starting with the children most in need.

The knowledge and skill base demanded of the young people who join the armed services is great. High-quality pre-kindergarten plays a critical role in ensuring that our next generation is academically fit and citizen ready.

Increasing access to Pennsylvania’s high-quality pre-kindergarten programs is not just an essential investment in a 21st century education system — it is also an essential investment in our future national security.

Rear Admiral David W. Kunkel, U.S. Coast Guard (retired) and Rear Admiral Thomas J. “T.J.” Wilson III, U.S. Navy (retired) are members of Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan national security organization of retired senior military officials that works to reverse the high percentage of American youth who are ineligible for military service.