Early education programs can solve a host of problems

When our state legislators convene this month, their No. 1 New Year’s resolution should be to ensure that we are not shortchanging Washington’s education system, from pre-K to 12. This is vitally important not only for our children’s future, but also for our nation’s future security.

As a retired Coast Guard admiral and member of the national security organization Mission: Readiness, I am deeply concerned that a full 75 percent of America’s 17- to 24-year-olds are ineligible to serve in the military primarily because they are poorly educated, physically unfit or have a criminal record.

Here in Washington, 24 percent of students do not graduate from high school on time. Among our state’s high school graduates who try to join the military, one in six cannot score highly enough on the military’s test of math, literacy and problem-solving to qualify.

Our 21st-century military increasingly requires a well-educated, technically sophisticated pool of recruits from which to fill its ranks. Research shows that high-quality education programs can help kids begin kindergarten ready to learn, bring them up to grade level and substantially boost their chances of graduating from high school.

Three long-term studies of high-quality early education programs show impressive education outcomes: Children who participated in the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school. Children not served by the Abecedarian project in North Carolina were 75 percent more likely to be held back in school. And the participants in the Chicago Child-Parent Centers were 29 percent more likely to have graduated from high school.

An evaluation of Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) for low-income children showed that those who attended this quality pre-kindergarten were making solid progress in acquiring the motor, language, pre-reading and pre-math skills necessary to begin kindergarten ready to learn.

In addition, the children in the program with serious behavioral concerns dropped by 25 percent from the fall to the spring.

In addition, two long-term studies show that early education gets strong results in preventing crime, and there is even new evidence showing how early learning programs can help reduce America’s rising rates of childhood obesity.

When kids do better in school, everyone benefits. When you factor in the positive results of early education programs – including reductions in crime, education savings and fewer social services – the return on investment is as much as $16 for every $1 invested. Such a high return on investment should resonate with our policymakers in Olympia as they work to get the most out of every dollar.

Unfortunately, there is tremendous unmet need in Washington. Only half of eligible children are served by ECEAP. I urge state legislators to fully fund a law passed in 2010 to enroll all of the state’s eligible children in the ECEAP program by the 2018-19 school year. I also urge them to comply with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision by funding the budget shortfall in K-12 education.

Just as our military wasn’t built overnight, it takes years to develop the talented, qualified men and women the military needs to confront global challenges. High-quality early education can help reverse all three of the primary disqualifiers to military service.

As a matter of national security, lawmakers should resolve to start the new year right by helping more kids get the right start in life.

Alan M. Steinman is a retired U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral. He lives in Olympia.