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Uncle Sam to Pre-Schoolers: I Want You … to be Ready

America’s national security will be put at risk if the government doesn’t make stronger investments in high-quality early childhood education for the nation’s young children.

That was the message delivered Thursday at the National Press Club by an unexpected cast of characters: half a dozen retired U.S. military commanders who spoke during the debut of an upstart national youth advocacy organization, Mission: Readiness.

The military leaders, who collectively represented two centuries’ worth of  U.S. military experience that stretches back to the Vietnam War, said that many of today’s toddlers, babies and unborn children won’t be able to serve in the nation’s armed forces when they grow up unless the government invests more in high-quality early childhood education.

National security in the year 2030, said retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. James A. Barnett Jr., is “absolutely dependent on what happens in pre-K today.”

Similar remarks were made by five other retired military commanders: U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, former Under Secretary for the Army Joe R. Reeder, U.S. Army Gen. James W. Comstock, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James A. Kelly and U. S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Douglass.

They were joined by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO. (Mother Jones magazine called Chicago’s perhaps the most militarized school system in the nation.)

Duncan, too, sounded the national security theme as he and the former military leaders urged Congress to pass his proposed Early Learning Challenge Fund, which would invest billions in early childhood education in the coming years.

“If we don’t educate our children well,” the education secretary said, “we put our nation at risk.”

Unable to Serve

Their message was backed by the release of a staggering estimate: that three out of four American youth are unable to serve in the military because they are overweight,  dropped out of high school or are convicted felons.

 

Those statistics are contained in a report released Thursday by Mission: Readiness titled Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve. However, organization officials acknowledged that the figures provided for each state are the organization’s “best guess.”

Some of the retired military leaders said the Pentagon doesn’t have the time or money or time to get these young people in shape, nor to guide high school dropouts to getting their GEDs. And clemency for young lawbreakers comes with its own set of political and bureaucratic problems.

So the next best thing is to resort to an ounce of prevention, the military leaders said, by stopping kids from dropping out of school, breaking the law or getting fat in the first place. And for two of those things – getting kids to obey the law and finish high school – one of the most effective ways is to provide them with a good early education, according to research the military leaders cited in making their case. That research has shown generally that high-quality early childhood education helps position youths better socially and academically later on in life.

The extent to which more kids obey the law and complete high school, the military leaders said,  will make it more likely for them to be able to enlist in the military. Though more youths have enlisted due to the economic downturn, the  military leaders said they can’t rely on harsh economic times to bolster their ranks.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a national security issue,” Comstock said.

Advocates for greater investments in early childhood education abound. Some found it bothersome that the military leaders were putting such a military bent on early childhood education.

“It’s like we care about whether they’re available for military service but not ready for life. It’s all about military service?” said Darlene Gramigna, a critic of Duncan’s militarization of education and Chicago-based program director at the American Friends Service Committee.

“That’s such a crazy way to put it forward,” Gramigna said.

 

Amy Dawson Taggart, national director for Mission: Readiness, admits she did some “soul-searching” before she got with the mission. The organization describes itself as a “nonprofit, bi-partisan organization led by senior retired military leaders ensuring continued American security and prosperity into the 21st century by calling for smart investments in the next generation of American children.”

Taggart said the issue comes down to investing in early childhood education as a means of preparing children for the future, whether that involves military service or not.

“If a bunch of retired admirals and generals are willing to come here and spend some of their precious time speaking in favor of early childhood education, isn’t that a good thing for our country?” Taggart asked.

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