In March, I was honored to testify before the Maine Legislature in Augusta on the benefits of voluntary public pre-kindergarten. I testified as a private citizen, father, grandfather, former teacher, and retired U.S. Army general.

My purpose in testifying was to draw a connection that to many, including state leaders and public policy makers, may not be readily apparent: why early education is so important, not only for the young children who attend, but also for the future of our country and our nation’s military.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, 71 percent of young people ages 17-24 nationwide, and 68 percent here in Maine, are unable to serve in the United States military. The reasons vary, but for the most part they are because these youth lack educational attainment, are physically unfit, or have a record of crime or drug use.

Our armed forces’ most important element is its people. I am concerned about our nation having the number of people and the quality of minds that our military will need to keep us safe and secure in the future.

What does education, especially early childhood education, have to do with national security? High-quality pre-K reaches kids in the first five years of life, a time period that is fundamental to the success or failure that comes afterwards. This is the age when young children develop core pre-literacy and pre-math skills and build the foundations for all later learning, including the cognitive, social and emotional skills that strengthen their ability to be good learners and good citizens. For some children, particularly those considered at-risk, early learning programs like pre-K give them an opportunity they otherwise would not have.

Simply put, high-quality pre-K is a long-term strategy that will help young people in Maine succeed in school so they can graduate and move forward to productive careers and lives.

Research shows the connection between quality early education and later academic performance. At-risk Maine children who attended public pre-K as 4-year-olds scored four to seven percentage points higher on reading and math assessments by third and fourth grade compared to children who did not attend the high-quality program. Long-term studies of two other high-quality pre-K programs in Chicago and Michigan found that participating children were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to have criminal records as adults.

Investments in early education will increase the number of young people who will be qualified candidates for military service if they choose to enlist. By providing young children with quality opportunities for early learning, we can help them become successful students who are more likely to finish school and pursue the career path of their choice.

For those of us who have made a career in the military, it has been an outstanding experience that afforded us opportunities for learning self-discipline, building professional skills, and serving our country and communities. It would be a shame for the next generation not to have the same opportunities, especially when we know early education is a proven strategy that can make a difference.

I strongly support further investments in early learning programs. I urge Maine lawmakers to support increased funding for expanded pre-K throughout Maine as proposed in the biennial state budget put forth by Gov/ Janet Mills. With their support, all children in our state will have a better chance of becoming productive citizens and, for some, the opportunity to serve in the Armed Forces and help keep our country strong, safe and secure.

 

Earl Adams, of Pittston, is a retired U.S. Army major general and member of Mission: Readiness, a national bipartisan organization of 750 retired admirals and generals, including 31 in Maine.

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