HARPSWELL — Much of the recent debate about ways to build our military strength has focused on additional ships and jets or developing new technologies. But no matter how much we spend on hardware or the latest and greatest technology, we will never be a secure nation if we do not have qualified and skilled men and women to operate that hardware and utilize that technology.

I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in a panel discussion at the public policy think tank American Enterprise Institute about the connection between military readiness and early childhood programs.

This might strike you as an odd topic, but education is an essential criterion for recruitment and service in a 21st-century military.

In previous generations, the military was an alternative to post-secondary education or even to completing high school. While each branch of the military has slightly different education requirements for enlisted personnel, today’s military rarely accepts candidates who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent college credits.

But nearly one in seven young people in Maine is not graduating from high school on time. On top of that, nearly one in five high school graduates in our state who take the required military entrance exam – the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test – cannot earn a high enough score to enlist.

This is not only a problem for the military. If our youth can’t meet the military’s qualifications, what other challenges will they face in becoming productive members of society?

Education is shaped by many factors, and I believe that parents are the first and most important teachers in a child’s life. That’s Plan A.

But we need to have a Plan B for the many children raised in households where their social, emotional and cognitive development is not fostered to its greatest potential. Among two-thirds of children age 5 and under in the U.S., and 69 percent of children that age here in Maine, the parent or parents who the child lives with works outside the home.

The importance of children’s earliest years cannot be overstated. There is scientific consensus that brain development from birth to age 5 sets the foundation for children’s future success. During these years, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. This early foundation informs children’s cognition, health and behavior throughout life.

That’s why high-quality early care and education programs are so important. Research shows that these programs provide young children with the building blocks of early math, language, reading and “character skills,” such as self-control, decision-making, communicating, teamwork and empathy. Early learning provided by programs like Head Start, pre-K and high-quality child care are critical during the first five years of life for all subsequent success in later formal education, from kindergarten, to elementary school, to high school, to post-secondary.

These academic and social-emotional skills support the kind of long-term outcomes needed to qualify for the military, or succeed in any other career path.

The Department of Defense’s child care system, the Military Child Development Program, has been cited by experts as a model for the nation. Over 200,000 children from military families across the country and around the world are growing and learning in high-quality early care and education programs focused on their cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. These programs are offered in a variety of settings, including in child development centers on military installations, in centers and family child care homes in civilian settings, in preschools located in K-12 schools, and through family child care homes in government housing.

We know that our service members will be a lot more focused on their jobs if they don’t have to worry about who’s caring for their kids. We also know we’ll never solve the educational challenges to our recruiting unless more kids are truly ready to learn when they start school.

High-quality early care and education build a solid foundation for the next generation to develop in mind, body and character so they can succeed in school and beyond, including in the military for those who choose to serve.

Given the current limited recruitment pool, our future military readiness depends on whether we choose to make this investment in our youngest citizens.

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