Compass: Stronger preschools pay off in more ways than one

As a former Commander of the Coast Guard Pacific Area and an Alaska resident for nearly 20 years (Riutta) and as a former neighbor--state National Guard Adjutant General responsible for contingency planning for Alaska state emergency responses (Lowenberg), we salute our nation's veterans and the men and women currently serving in uniform.

But we and other retired military leaders are concerned that if we don't take action soon, we are going to find it harder and harder to find the recruits with the reading, mathematics and problem-solving skills that are needed in today's technology-driven military.

The Department of Defense estimates that 75 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 cannot qualify for military service, many because they are academically unprepared. In Alaska, 28 percent of high school students do not graduate on time and 20 percent of those who do graduate and try to join the Army cannot score well enough on the military's exam to enlist.

It is time to turn this ship around and, fortunately, we know what is proven to work.

High-quality early childhood education can prepare children to start school ready to learn, can improve student performance over the long-term, and can boost high school graduation rates.

Alaska is one of only four states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks for its pre-kindergarten program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. However, the program only serves 2 percent of 4-year-olds in the state.

Recent results from studies of other state preschool programs, particularly New Jersey, show that high-quality early education programs can be implemented on a large scale by states and that these programs have sustained benefits for children. By the time they are past third grade, children who attended New Jersey's preschool program for two years were three-quarters of an academic year ahead in math, compared to their peers who did not attend, and two-thirds of an academic year ahead in literacy.

Studies of state preschool programs in Michigan, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania have also shown gains in literacy and reductions in the number of children needing special education or being held back in school.

These new research results are strengthened by long-term studies of high-quality preschool programs. For example, children who attended the Chicago Child-Parent Centers were 40 percent less likely to be placed in special education and, by age 20, were 29 percent more likely to have graduated from high school.

This is also a bipartisan issue. In 2013, Republican and Democratic governors in 25 states have proposed or signed into law significant expansions of state preschool programs. They've seen the results and they know these investments will make their states healthier and more competitive.

For these reasons and more, hundreds of retired admirals and generals strongly support providing the resources to create, strengthen and expand preschool programs. Investing in high-quality early education programs will provide significant returns in the years ahead producing more high school graduates and providing the foundations necessary for success.

We encourage all Alaskans at both the state and federal level to work together to improve educational achievement today and strengthen our national security in the years to come.

Vice Adm. (ret.) Ray Riutta served as commander of the Coast Guard's Pacific Area and was a longtime Alaska resident. Air Force Maj. Gen. (ret.) Timothy Lowenberg was National Guard adjutant general in Washington state for 13 years. Both are members of Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group of more than 400 senior retired military leaders encouraging smart investments in America's children.