As a major general in the United States Marine Corps, I was often a desert warrior, toiling in arid, desolate terrain in Iraq and Afghanistan. In retirement, I’m concerned with a different challenge, with a different kind of “desert.” Specifically, a lack of early care and education prevents our youngest Americans from getting on the best possible path, leading to a variety of issues as they grow into adulthood. And a big part of the problem relates to “child care deserts,” where there are three or more children for each licensed child care slot.
This early care and education challenge is also undermining our national security. Here in Florida, educational deficits, health issues and other problems, including substance abuse and crime, prevent fully 72% of youth from qualifying for military service. Many young children who later choose the wrong path do so as the result of inadequate early care. Lack of access to preschool places children from low-income families at risk of starting school already behind their more-advantaged peers.
Some 38% of Florida residents live in child care deserts. We have a child care crisis in Florida that the COVID-19 pandemic made worse. One of the principal reasons: low compensation and subpar working conditions for educators that cause turnover, impacting program quality and reducing child care capacity. When families don’t have child care, parents’ work productivity falls, resulting in costs to parents, their employers and taxpayers.
Helping to put young people on a better path — while ensuring the strength of our future national security — is the reason I joined Mission: Readiness. This national membership organization consists of nearly 800 retired admirals and generals who recognize that the strength of our country depends in part on a military composed of educated, healthy young people. With fellow retired service leaders, I champion evidence-based, bipartisan state and federal public policy solutions that are proven to prepare our youth to be able to serve their nation in any way they choose.
Last month, Council for a Strong America (Mission: Readiness’ parent nonprofit) released updated research that estimates Florida’s child care crisis for infants and toddlers is costing our state economy $6.6 billion a year. Just four years ago, the analysis found the Florida impact was $2.9 billion a year. So, the problem has more than doubled based on those estimates.
As our state Legislature undertakes its annual work, there has been much talk about K-12 and postsecondary education, but very little attention on boosting the quality of pre-kindergarten, shoring up the child care system or providing training and professional development for early childhood care and education professionals. On March 22, Mission: Readiness members will be in Tallahassee to release a report, Early Childhood Educators Set Florida Kids on the Path to Success, as part of our effort to urge state legislators to do more to strengthen the early childhood workforce.
Improving early care and education is the right thing to do competitively. In the global marketplace, our nation stands at a disadvantage: Too many of our children, by comparison with other industrialized countries, don’t start learning until kindergarten. It is in our national self-interest to make early care and education investments. Our economy will grow if more parents can stay in the workforce because there is affordable child care for kids.
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Healthy early development sets the stage for future success. Without investments in and improvements to our state’s early care and education systems, we risk having more children end up in trouble, more children condemned to poverty, an even smaller military recruiting pool and a growing competitiveness gap with other states and countries. Investing in Florida’s early education system will help us better meet the needs of children, families and educators. This is a mission that we should all support — and that must succeed.
Gregg Sturdevant, a retired U.S. Marine Corps major general, is a member of Mission: Readiness. He lives in Tampa.