Lancaster Online: Op-ed: We need to invest in pre-K for the sake of our nation
November 11, 2016

When we pause on Veterans Day on Friday to thank those who devote themselves to military service, we are thanking them for the talents and character traits they put on the line for our country.

They are strong leaders, selfless public servants and brave women and men. They also are resourceful, good communicators and, above all, team players. Working together, they preserve the freedom and values we cherish.

While today’s increasingly sophisticated military demands technological capabilities unknown by previous generations, the backbone of a strong defense is and always has been its people and their readiness to serve.

Unfortunately, readiness has become problematic for military recruitment today, and the possible consequences are deeply troubling.

According to the 2016 Citizen-Readiness Index, 72 percent of Pennsylvanians ages 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service because of problems with obesity, education, drug abuse or crime. That’s three out of four young adults whose potential can’t be tapped to serve our country, whether in peace or war.

The Citizen-Readiness Index, produced by the Council for a Strong America, warns of problems ahead if our young people aren’t prepared to perform in the military, workplaces or communities.

The index also found that, in Pennsylvania, 13 percent of ages 16 to 24 are unemployed and not in school, and that 13 out of 100 ages 17 to 24 have an arrest record.

It all ties together. Employers want the same capable people military leaders need: self-starters, the technologically skilled, problem solvers. If those go-getters simply don’t exist, then our national security and our economic vitality suffer.

When searching for solutions to this multifaceted dilemma, one cannot ignore high-quality prekindergarten.

Research is clear: The seeds of capability are sown in the earliest years of life. From birth to age 5, children are primed to build the foundation for academic achievement and physical and emotional health.

High-quality prekindergarten education helps build that foundation by creating strong connections in the brain to carry thought and emotion.

It instills lasting academic gains, cuts down on future crime rates and dramatically reduces childhood obesity rates. The result is fewer taxpayer dollars spent on crime and welfare and, more importantly, young people better prepared to serve their country and their communities.

The U.S. military has long recognized the value of investing in high-quality early learning. All active-duty families living on military installations have access to prekindergarten programs meeting the highest standards of excellence.

Military families not living on base qualify for a stipend to spend on early learning that must meet measurable standards of excellence.

The investment is part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s $1.3 billion yearly commitment to children and youth. After all, today’s children are tomorrow’s men and women in uniform, and evidence-based early learning is the first step in whittling down the numbers of young adults who aren’t qualified to serve.

Pennsylvania has made impressive strides in delivering high-quality early learning to the children most likely to benefit, but need remains.

In Lancaster County, more than 300 new state-funded pre-K slots were established this year. Yet 83 percent of eligible children still do not have access to high-quality, publicly funded prekindergarten. Pennsylvania should follow the military’s lead and continue to prioritize early education.

On this Veterans Day, it’s easy and appropriate to say, “Thank you for your service,” but let’s not stop there.

Let’s ensure the hard work and sacrifice of previous generations is upheld and carried forward by our youth. Continuing Pennsylvania’s commitment to high-quality prekindergarten is a promise to prepare our next generation of citizens.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dennis L. Benchoff and U.S. Navy Vice-Admiral (Ret.) Daniel L. Cooper are Lancaster County residents serving on the Executive Advisory Council of Mission: Readiness — Military Leaders for Kids.

Read the op-ed here.