Why are two former heads of the Kentucky National Guard and a former head of Marine Corps Recruiting Command concerned about preschool? Because high-quality early learning programs can help reverse the three primary reasons why 75 percent of young Americans cannot join the military: poor educational achievement, obesity and criminal behavior.
In Kentucky, one in five high school students does not graduate on time and, of those who do graduate and try to join the military, almost one in four cannot score high enough on the military's exam of math, literacy and problem-solving to be able to serve.
This is bad news for today's military, which needs men and women who are qualified to handle increasingly complex technologies and systems. A growing pool of ineligible young Americans threatens to undermine future recruiting and national security.
We recognize that many factors influence educational achievement, but high-quality early learning has been proven time and time again to work. Research shows that these programs can improve student performance, boost high school graduation rates, deter youth from crime and, by helping children develop healthy early exercise and good nutrition habits, even help reduce childhood obesity rates.
A recent study of New Jersey's preschool program found that by the fourth or fifth grade, those who participated in the program were three-quarters of an academic year ahead in math and two-thirds of an academic year ahead in literacy compared to those who did not.
Studies of high quality preschool programs in other states and localities also report benefits such as impressive gains on literacy and reductions in the numbers of children needing special education services or being held back in school.
These results are reinforced by long-term studies of early childhood programs, such as the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, which have served over 100,000 children. Participants were 29 percent more likely to have graduated from high school by age 20, while children left out of the program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.
Many people are understandably concerned about the cost of preschool programs in a time when budget cuts are the norm. However, these programs provide some of the highest return on investment. An independent analysis of the research studies shows that high-quality early-learning programs cut crime, welfare and other societal costs so much that they produce average net benefits to society of $15,000 for every child served.
Unfortunately, high-quality preschool programs are not reaching nearly enough of the children who stand to benefit from them. Right now, more than half of our states serve 30 percent or fewer of their four-year-olds. The Kentucky Preschool Program serves 30 percent of the state's four-year-olds.
This is why we and hundreds of other retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness support the bipartisan Strong Start for America's Children Act recently introduced in Congress. This legislation would establish a state-federal partnership to provide states with the resources to create, strengthen and expand quality preschool programs.
Earlier this year, we met with U.S. Representative Hal Rogers to highlight the national security benefits of high-quality early learning and to encourage him to support this state-federal partnership for expanding early learning opportunities.
Over the coming weeks, our senior congressional leaders have a unique opportunity to provide funding to begin to build this partnership. We urge them to do so for our children's future and for our future national security.
About the authors: Michael W. Davidson of Louisville is a retired major general in the U.S. Army and a former head of the Kentucky National; Jerry D. Humble of Russellville is retired major general and former commanding general of recruiting for U.S. Marine Corps; D. Allen Youngman of Alvaton, is retired U.S. Army major general and a former of the Kentucky Guard.