Early childhood care and education have countless lifelong benefits for our people, our state and our country. In fact, a person’s success is rooted in what happens during the first five years of life.

That is why we are proponents of investments in high-quality care and learning programs for Maine’s youngest residents. With the challenges Maine and the nation face in workforce readiness and military preparedness, we believe investments in these areas are more important than ever and deserve to be a priority for all of us.

First, an understanding of the economic and military readiness challenges we face is warranted and, frankly, should serve as a wake-up call to all of us.

Maine has the oldest population in the country and our aging workforce reflects that. We are facing a workforce shortage on two fronts. One is a shortage in the number of workers that employers need, or quantity. The second is a shortage of workers with the education and skills Maine employers need, or quality. There is no question we are approaching a workforce crisis that threatens Maine’s ability to compete and succeed.

Our military is also facing a shortage of men and women who are ready and able to serve. Estimates from the U.S. Department of Defense indicate a shocking 71 percent of young Americans are not eligible to serve in the military, largely because they are too poorly educated, too overweight, or have a history of crime or drug use. In Maine, it’s 68 percent of our youth who are ineligible to serve based on one of more of these barriers. This is a looming crisis that weakens our nation’s capacity to recruit, train and retain a strong military to keep America safe.

Many collaborative efforts are underway to help address the looming workforce and military preparedness crises, including efforts targeting Maine kids early in life that merit further investment.

Specifically, what efforts can be expanded to give Maine kids the right start so they can achieve and succeed in school and in life and be ready for the workplace or military service?

The first are high-quality early care and education programs such as Early Head Start and voluntary home visiting. By reaching infants and new parents — even parents-to-be — with these programs, parents learn skills to best support child development and health so their kids are given a stronger foundation and start in life.

Next, increased investment in programs like Head Start, and high-quality pre-K and child care can continue to support kids and families. These programs can have an enormous impact not only on a child’s reading and math skills, but also can help cultivate their curiosity and benefit their cognitive, social and emotional development, teaching them the beginnings of key lifelong skills such as self-discipline, how to work with others, and a mindset to stick with a task until it is completed.

Combined, high-quality early care and education programs reach kids at an age when we know rapid brain development takes place. They then are better prepared to learn when they start elementary school, and stronger learners throughout the education pipeline.

Long-term studies and rigorous research provide clear evidence of this.

Researchers of the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan studied two groups of children. One group attended the high-quality Perry Preschool Program and the other did not. They found that, compared to the control group, three times as many children from the preschool group were at basic level of achievement or higher at age 14. The kids who attended were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school than similar kids who did not attend.

A similar study of Chicago’s Child Parent Centers found that participants in the high-quality pre-kindergarten program were 29 percent more likely to have graduated from high school.

When kids have a chance to build a strong foundation early in life, they are better able to achieve in school and succeed in life. This is especially true for at-risk kids.

When Maine looks at ways to address the workforce and military readiness challenges, there is no better place to start than at the very beginning of our youngest citizens’ lives with quality early care and learning programs.

We believe we all can and should champion early care and learning programs for Maine kids as wise investments in our people, our state and our nation’s military.

Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, is co-chairman of the bipartisan Maine Children’s Caucus. Major General Bill Libby is retired from the U.S. Army and is a former Maine Adjutant General and commissioner of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.

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