Most Americans probably do not tie education to national security. But a new report, "Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve," produced by Mission: Readiness / Military Leaders for Kids, a nonprofit national security group based in Washington, warns that we make a big mistake when we fail to see that connection, especially when global terrorism increasingly requires the United States to maintain a strong fighting force.
Mission: Readiness is made up of more than 90 top retired admirals, generals and other military leaders, including the former NATO supreme commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton. According to the group's report, using information provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Pew Charitable Trust and other sources, 75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 nationwide, roughly 26 million, are ineligible to enlist in the military because they fail to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit. Florida has more than 1.4 million young adults ineligible to join, with an estimated 35 percent of them not earning high school diplomas in the traditional time.
"These are the same young people we depend on to serve in times of need and ultimately protect the nation," Clark said during a recent news conference when the report was released. "Support for high-quality early education will help ensure that more young people are on track for successful careers, including military service. Congress is currently considering the Early Learning Challenge Fund and must pass it so states can provide more children with this essential opportunity for learning."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan attended the news conference and voiced support for the group's goal of vastly improving early childhood education. He said the Obama administration would provide $1 billion annually during the next eight years to states to help them expand access to early childhood education and for training that would guarantee the programs are high quality.
"If we don't educate our children well, we put our nation at risk," Duncan said.
The report states the number of students dropping out of high school problematic and that those who earn a General Educational Development certificate typically lack the reading and math skills needed to perform many of the increasingly complex jobs and operate the high-tech machines in the contemporary armed forces. The same can be said of many students who earn a traditional diploma, according to the report.
Indeed, the old days of tens of thousands of "grunts" simply having the ability to put the enemy in the sights of rifles are pretty much gone. Today's military needs smart people to understand and operate, for example, drones and other computerized weapons that are being added to the nation's arsenal.
Recruitment, therefore, concerns top brass. While all branches currently are meeting their goals mainly because the sour economy is driving people into their recruitment offices, the retired leaders said the difficulty of finding top-notch recruits probably will return with a vengeance when the economy improves.
By their very nature, admirals and generals look over the horizon to identify future trouble and devise defenses, and those affiliated with Mission: Readiness see a worrisome trend. "Our national security in the year 2030 is absolutely dependent on what's going on in prekindergarten today," Rear Adm. James Barnett said during the news conference. "We urge Congress to take action on this issue this year."
The retired leaders offered evidence from prominent studies showing children who succeed in well-run early childhood education programs are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and stay away from crime. Over several decades, scholars tracked children who attended a highly regarded early education program in Chicago and found that by age 18, children who were not in the program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than their peers who attended.
In practical terms, the U.S. military benefits from such programs. "Commanders in the field have to trust that our soldiers will respect authority, work within the rules and know the difference between right and wrong," Maj. Gen. James A. Kelley said during an interview. "Early learning opportunities help instill the qualities that make better citizens, better workers and better candidates for uniformed service."
This week, Barack Obama is expected to announce his strategy for "finishing the job" in the eight-year-old Afghanistan war. Reports indicate that part of that strategy is to deploy as many as 34,000 more troops to the region.
No matter how war-wary most Americans are today, the harsh reality is that the United States is part of an increasingly sophisticated, dangerous world and will continue to need a mobile, well-trained and intelligent armed force. Without doubt, high-quality education and our national security are inseparable.