The military is my life. For 31 years I served active duty in the Marines and have since continued to support our country’s national defense. Over the course of my career, I have flown more than 300 combat missions and participated in the operation to evacuate Saigon during the Vietnam War, as well as commanding hundreds of honorable Marines.
It may be surprising to learn that, given my history, today I find one of the greatest threats to our security to be a lack of investment in our children in their early years. Quality early childhood education in Kansas is under siege, and it is imperative we fight for it.
I have no doubt that many of you are wondering why a retired general is speaking out about quality early learning. But poor education – failing to graduate from high school – is one of the leading disqualifiers for military service.
In Kansas, 14 percent of high school students fail to graduate on time, making it difficult to join the military without a high school diploma. Even among Kansas young adults who do finish high school, 21 percent of those seeking to enlist cannot score highly enough on the military’s exam for math, literacy and problem-solving to join.
These problems are rooted in the earliest years of life. Research shows that quality early childhood education acts as the foundation for math and literacy, as well as developing social skills that enable children to work well with others and function as part of a team.
A study highlighted by the Mission: Readiness military leaders group says that by age 3, a child’s brain has reached 85 percent of its adult weight and as early as 9 months old, learning gaps begin to distinguish between advantaged and disadvantaged children, with disadvantaged children starting kindergarten as much as a year and a half behind their peers. Many of these children never catch up, increasing their risk of dropping out of high school and lessening their chances of serving in the military, should they so choose.
Unfortunately, Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed a budget that would eliminate Kansas’ primary infrastructure for early childhood education. The budget would dismantle the Children’s Initiatives Fund, which was dedicated years ago when lawmakers committed to children and the state’s future by promising tobacco settlement funds to the expansion and improvement of quality early learning. As a result, we are on the cusp of losing one of the most valuable resources for ensuring children enter school ready to learn.
To enroll a child in high-quality private preschool costs nearly $8,000 a year, or 20 percent of the income of a moderate salary-level Kansas family. This is far more than many families can afford, and research already shows that nearly 60 percent of Kansas 3- and 4-year-olds are not attending preschool at all.
The responsibility of safeguarding the futures of Kansas youth now rests on the shoulders of the Legislature. I strongly urge it to reject the budget proposal to dismantle the Children’s Initiatives Fund.
The fund not only increases children’s educational success, but also strengthens the future security of our nation.
William A. “Art” Bloomer of Wichita is a retired brigadier general with the U.S. Marine Corps.