– Investing more in high-quality early learning programs is essential to future workforce development and national security, said military and business leaders from Northeast Pennsylvania last week.
They released a new report from the national security nonprofit Mission: Readiness as part of a preschool classroom visit at Back Mountain Head Start Center. The report documents Department of Defense figures showing that 75 percent of young adults nationwide are currently unable to join the military, the biggest reason being poor educational achievement. The report also shows that one in five high school graduates in Pennsylvania does not score high enough on the military entrance exam to qualify for service.
Two former Commanders of the 28th Infantry Division of the PA National Guard, Major General (Ret.) Daniel O'Neill, a Honesdale native, and Major General (Ret.) Joseph Perugino, were joined by Denise Cesare, President and CEO of Blue Cross of Northeast PA, in thanking the state lawmakers in attendance for their legislative leadership that resulted in level funding for quality early learning programs for this current school year (Pre-K Counts at $82.7 million, Head Start Supplemental Assistance program at $37.2 million, and the Accountability Block Grants, which school districts use for pre-kindergarten and other evidence-based early childhood programs, at $100 million).
They noted, however, that too many of Pennsylvania's 3- and 4-year-olds do not have access to publicly-funded high quality early care and education programs that are key to educational achievement and advancement.
"Many of our young adults cannot meet the military's standards in math, reading and problem solving," said General O'Neill, a member of Mission: Readiness. "The reality of our modern-day military is that young people in uniform must operate cutting-edge technology and possess critical thinking skills. So, just as in the civilian workforce, the military increasingly needs better-educated young men and women to run its weapons systems."
Cesare echoed similar concerns of a rising skills gap among American youth and its negative impact on civilian sector businesses.
"Sixty percent of new jobs in the 21st century will require skills that only 20 percent of the current American workforce has," said Cesare. "This is troubling as businesses recover from the economic recession and look to hire new employees."
General Perugino and Cesare noted how high-quality early education programs establish a student's foundation for learning, which leads to higher academic achievement and social skills that businesses need in their employees and the military requires of its soldiers. They also noted the tremendous return on investment that early learning programs yield as more children start school ready to learn, graduate on time and are propelled into a more positive life trajectory.
"Long-term studies and rigorous research provide clear evidence about the positive impact of quality early education for at-risk kids," said General Perugino. "A 40-year study of the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan found that the children who attended the Perry Preschool were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school than their peers who did not attend."
Page 2 of 2 - "As a business person, I am impressed by the return on investment from early learning," said Cesare. "When you factor in the positive results of early education programs — less special education, less grade repetition, more earning potential, less reliance on social services and less involvement in crime — the return on investment is up to $16 for every $1 invested, an impressive return."
The Mission: Readiness report shows that, despite these positive impacts, 82 percent of Pennsylvania's 3- and 4-year-olds do not have access to high-quality public pre-k programs.
"Here in Luzerne County more than 600 at-risk kids are currently on a waiting list for these quality early education services," said Steve Doster, the Pennsylvania State Director of Mission: Readiness. "These local and state figures depicting high unmet need, paired with the positive life changing results of early learning programs, demands action and a plan to expand the reach of state-funded early childhood education to more at-risk children."
Mission: Readiness is comprised of more than 300 retired admirals and generals nationwide, including 14 in Pennsylvania. The organization supports efforts to improve the health and education of our next generation to help ensure America's youth succeed academically, stay physically fit, and abide by the law today so that military service and productive citizenship are an option tomorrow.