Preschool today will support the military tomorrow

As a former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, I salute all of the men and women who have served, and are currently serving, in uniform.
But I am very concerned that 75 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 cannot quality for military service.

Yes, you read that correctly. The opportunity to serve is out of reach to the vast majority of young adults because they are academically
unprepared, are overweight, or have a criminal record.

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The worse news? There is very little the military can do to transform the more than 500,000 young adults who drop out of high school into the recruits we need. Gone are the days when military service might be viewed as a “fall-back” plan for people who are at loose ends or not prepared for higher education. Today’s technology-driven military needs young men and women who can hit the ground running with strong math, literacy and problem solving skills. This is the same crop of high school graduates who are being aggressively recruited by top colleges and employers as well.

With this in mind, hundreds of retired generals and admirals from Mission: Readiness are voicing strong support for the recently introduced Strong Start for America’s Children Act, bipartisan legislation that will give states the resources to create, strengthen and expand quality preschool programs. Our reasons are pragmatic: study after study shows  participation in quality preschool enables children to grow up with the academic and social skills that are vital for success in higher education, good private sector jobs and the military, should they choose to serve.

The benefits start early, as children in quality programs learn the basics of numbers and letters and social skills such as impulse control and getting along with others. As evidenced by studies of state preschool programs in New Jersey, Michigan, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, these benefits have led to impressive gains in literacy and math, and reductions in the number of children being held back in school.

The benefits continue as children go through elementary school. By the time they were past third grade, children who participated in New
Jersey’s high-quality program for two years were three-fourths of an academic year ahead in math and two-thirds of an academic year ahead
in literacy compared to those who did not attend. Those in Boston’s program gained the equivalent of seven months of additional learning by the end of the program.  Similar results have been achieved in North Carolina, and in a San Francisco Bay Area program that led disadvantaged children to become better readers than wealthier peers.

Equally important: Researchers who followed and compared outcomes for disadvantaged children who did or did not participate in quality
programs found participants were far more likely to succeed in high school and stay out of the criminal justice system. As profiled in the
Journal of the American Medical Association, children left out of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers program (which served over 100,000
children) were 70 percent more likely to have been incarcerated as young adults than those not served. Participants, on the other hand, were 40 percent less likely to be placed in special education and, by age 20, 29 percent more likely to have graduated from high school.

Emerging evidence also shows that preschool lessons about healthier eating and exercise habits can help us reverse the childhood obesity
epidemic. A randomized, controlled study of a Chicago program showed that children who did not participate gained 16 percent more weight
over the next two years than those who did participate. Schools in New York City, Philadelphia and Mississippi that served more nutritious
foods, boosted exercise and coached parents on nutrition and physical activity achieved drops in childhood obesity from five to 24 percent.

Small wonder that in 2013 alone, 25 Republican and Democratic governors have proposed or enacted significant expansions of state preschool programs.

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act puts states in the driver’s seat when it comes to developing quality preschool programs. States can use the resources to improve preschool programs by reducing class sizes and requiring teachers to have appropriate early learning
credentials. States with programs that are already doing a great job can enroll more children. And all states that choose to participate can empower their elected leaders to act on the promise to give every child a foundation for long-term success.

As Congress considers this bill, it should keep that in mind that our national security in 2027 depends on getting more children into high
quality preschool today.

Loy is former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and former deputy secretary of Homeland Security.