Morning Call: State Rep. Dan McNeill and retired Rear Admiral David W. Kunzel: Quality pre-k programs build essential foundation for children

November 10, 2016

On this Veterans Day, we take time to honor the men and women among us who served in the Armed Forces. From World War II to present-day engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan — whether they served in war or peace — our veterans went where their nation needed them and served with honor and integrity. They are deserving of our gratitude.

Of course the Army GIs, the Navy sailors and aviators, the Marines, the Coast Guardsmen, or the Air Force fliers of World War II might not recognize the high-tech trappings of today’s military, but they know they can shake hands with men and women who bring the same heart and dedication to service that they did. Even as the military changes, the dedicated people needed to carry out their duties remains constant.

That is why we are troubled by the findings of a recent report from the Council for a Strong America. According to the 2016 citizen-readiness index, 72 percent of Pennsylvania youth ages 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service due to problems with obesity, education, drug abuse or crime.

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

If the military can’t call on these young adults to serve, it’s likely businesses can’t, either. Any institution, whether business or military, thrives and grows on the talents and work ethic of its people. When the talent pool is so depleted that employers can’t find innovators and team players to fill their jobs, then the economy will suffer.

As we pause to think about the veterans who served this country, we should also be searching for solutions to maintain the future strength of the armed forces they so ably served. Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders both in the civilian workforce and the military. One of the most effective tools for assuring their citizen-readiness is high-quality early childhood education.

Groundbreaking research has revealed the remarkable development of the brain from birth to age 5, when the foundation is built for a lifetime of academic achievement, social functioning and physical health. Children from high-quality prekindergarten go on to experience fewer grade repetitions and special education placements, lower rates of crime and incarceration, and increased graduation rates. They even learn healthy eating and exercise habits that substantially reduce rates of childhood obesity.

In the overall equation, these young people cost us less in taxpayer dollars spent on education, health care and criminal justice. More importantly, they are likelier to be fully contributing citizens, ready for military service and good jobs.

Unfortunately, too few children get the opportunities that prepare them for success. In Lehigh County, 74 percent of at-risk children don’t have access to publicly funded, high-quality prekindergarten. In Northampton County, it’s 78 percent. Pennsylvania has made great strides in committing to early learning, but as the county numbers show, it’s not enough.

In fact, Pennsylvania could follow the example of the Department of Defense, which has made a substantial commitment to early learning. On military bases worldwide, the department has established high-quality prekindergarten, so personnel can work on their vital missions with the comfort of knowing that their children are enjoying days of fun and learning in safe environments.

And because so many military personnel don’t live on bases, the Defense Department offers vouchers that substantially reduce the cost of prekindergarten. These vouchers must be spent in facilities meeting measurable standards of excellence.

Military service is filled with difficult decisions, but this time, the choice is simple. Pennsylvania’s commitment to high-quality prekindergarten will produce a corps of young Americans who, like the veterans we honor today, are citizen-ready.

State Rep. Dan McNeill of Whitehall Township, who represents the 133rd District, previously served in the Pennsylvania National Guard. David W. Kunkel of Allentown is a retired rear admiral with the Coast Guard and serves on the executive advisory committee of Mission: Readiness – Military Leaders for Kids. 

Read the article here.