As the Legislature considers the next state budget, I would like to highlight the importance of funding for Maine’s youngest learners.

The sad truth is that today 75 percent of 17- to 24-year olds are unfit to serve in our armed services.

Data from the Department of Defense indicate that these young people have one or more disqualifiers: they lack proper education, are physically unfit or already have a serious criminal record.

Among Maine’s high school graduates, 19 percent who attempt to join the Army cannot do well enough on the military’s test of math and literacy skills to be admitted.

This is a sad state of affairs for our young people and potentially for our nationally security.

That’s why so many retired generals and admirals like me have joined Mission: Readiness, a national security organization whose purpose is to raise awareness about these challenges and what we need to do to address them.

We cannot wait until a student is 17 or 18 years old.

We must start with high-quality early education, such as pre-kindergarten and Head Start.

High-quality early learning improves later academic performance and increases graduation rates. It also helps children develop social skills, character and curiosity — all of which lay the groundwork for self-discipline, motivation and the ability to work as a team player. These are essential skills for success in all careers, including military service.

I am pleased to learn that Gov. Paul LePage’s current budget avoids further cuts in early learning programs such as Head Start.

I hope that the Legislature will agree with the governor on the value of these important programs and, in the near future, find the funding to increase access for more of Maine’s children.

Bill Libby, retired

Major general, U.S. Army

Sidney