As a U.S. Army general, I was in charge of recruiting for the entire Army during the "Be All You Can Be" era. After retiring from military service, I was president of the University of Alaska for over a decade. So I know from personal experience what it takes for young people to succeed, and I am very concerned that the vast majority of young people in Alaska, and across the country, will not be able to fulfill the potential of that Army slogan.
According to the Department of Defense, 71 percent of all young Alaskans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to join the military, primarily because they are too poorly educated, too overweight, or have a record of crime or drug abuse. This matches the national rate. The National Commission on the Future of the Army recently warned of a "small pool of talent, and it is likely to shrink even more," leading to "potential future challenges for military recruiting."
While there is no single solution to this problem, research highlighted by the national security organization Mission: Readiness shows that high-quality pre-K can address the major disqualifiers for military service by helping to boost graduation rates, deter youth from crime and reduce obesity rates.
Long-term studies of early-education programs show impressive education and crime prevention outcomes. For example, children who participated in Michigan's Perry Preschool were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school. Another study found that children left out of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers program were 70 percent more likely than participants to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.
While most state preschool programs have not been around long enough to measure outcomes into adulthood, programs that have invested in quality have already demonstrated strong results.
Michigan's state preschool program reported a 51 percent reduction in being held back in school and a 35 percent increase in on-time high school graduation. Meanwhile, New Jersey's preschool program reported that children in the program were three-fourths of a year ahead in math and two-thirds of a year ahead in literacy in the fourth and fifth grades. Similarly, children in North Carolina's programs made gains equivalent to five months of learning in reading and three to five months in math by the third grade.
The impact of early education on math skills is particularly important given the increasing importance of math and technology across many professions, including military service.
There is even new evidence that early-learning programs can help reduce America's high rates of obesity by instilling healthy eating and exercise habits that prepare children for a lifelong culture of health. Preschools in several different areas across the country that served nutritious food, increased physical activity among children and coached parents on these topics saw significant declines in child obesity.
Since quality is the key to early education's benefits, the good news is that Alaska's state pre-K program meets all 10 quality benchmarks from the National Institute for Early Education Research. The bad news is that the state Legislature has cut funding for this program, which currently serves only 3 percent of Alaska's 4-year-olds.
I urge state lawmakers to restore the $2 million for pre-K to help ensure that young Alaskans can "be all they can be" in college, the civilian workforce or the military for those who choose to serve.
Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Mark R. Hamilton served as commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command and was president of the University of Alaska from 1998-2010.
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