Recently I was invited to speak to the Legislative Children’s Caucus about the importance of high-quality early education from my perspective as a retired U.S. Army general and a former adjutant general of Maine.

Some people might wonder why a retired general cares about early education. Let me connect the dots. According to the Department of Defense, 70 percent of young people in Maine, and 71 percent across the country, are not eligible to serve in the military, primarily because they haven’t graduated from high school, they are too overweight, or they have a record of crime or drug abuse.

In Maine, 13 percent of high school students do not graduate on time, and without a high school diploma, it is very difficult to enlist. Among all of the military service branches, between 94 and 99 percent of recruits have graduated from high school.

Even among our state’s high school graduates, 19 percent seeking to enlist cannot join because of low scores on the military’s exam for math, literacy, and problem solving.

These shocking statistics should be a wake-up call for all of us. This situation is not only regrettable for those young people who are unable to enlist, but it also weakens our nation’s ability to maintain a strong military.

We must craft solutions that help address this major problem. One of the most proven solutions is high-quality early education, which prepares children to start school ready to learn, and puts them on a path to success.

High-quality early learning programs promote critical early math and reading skills and they also help cultivate curiosity and develop social skills. Success in the military, like success in many other careers, demands self-discipline, the ability to work with others, and a mindset to stick with a task until it is completed. Research shows that success is rooted in what happens during the first five years of life. Indeed, studies highlighted in reports from the nonprofit Mission: Readiness, of which I am a member, provide clear evidence about the positive impact of quality early education.

An evaluation of Maine’s voluntary public preschool programs found that, by the fourth grade, at-risk children who participated in preschool had 13 percent higher proficiency in reading and 12 percent higher proficiency in math compared to their like peers who didn’t attend preschool. Children in New Jersey’s preschool program were three-fourths of a year ahead in math and two-thirds of a year ahead in literacy in the fourth and fifth grades. Similarly, children in North Carolina’s early learning programs made gains equivalent to five months of learning in reading and three to five months in math by the third grade.

High-quality preschool can also impact long-term outcomes. For example, children who participated in Michigan’s Perry Preschool Project were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school. A similar study of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers showed that children who did not participate in the pre-K program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

There is even new evidence that early learning programs can help reduce America’s high rate of childhood obesity and contribute to a culture of health. Studies find that preschool programs that emphasize healthy eating and exercise can reduce child obesity rates by as much as 24 percent.

All of this research shows that quality early education programs can help address the primary disqualifiers for military service. There are many reasons to support these programs and I believe their importance for our future national security should make them a top priority.

Currently 42 percent of Maine 4-year-olds are participating in Maine’s voluntary public PreK programs. With 58 percent of our youngest learners not being served — the unmet need is still too great.

As our legislators consider the state budget, I urge them to protect current funding, and increase funding, for high-quality early education, especially public pre-K and Head Start in Maine. This will help ensure that more children succeed in school and enter the workforce with many options, including a career in the military if they choose to pursue one.

U.S. Army Major General Bill Libby (retired) served in the LePage and Baldacci administrations as Maine’s adjutant general and commissioner of Veterans Affairs and Emergency Management.

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