The United States should invest in early education to help bolster the number of young people eventually eligible to serve in the military and protect national-security interests, a report released last week argues.
A majority of the nation’s young adults are ineligible for military service because they have not graduated from high school, have criminal records, or are physically unfit, says the report, produced by Mission: Readiness—Military Leaders For Kids. The nonprofit national-security group, based in Washington, is made up of more than seven dozen retired senior military officers.
Based on research from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Defense, the report says 75 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24—about 26 million people—are ineligible to join the military.
“A quality education is really an issue of national security,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a Nov. 5 news conference held to release the report. “If we don’t educate our children well, we put our nation at risk.”
Mr. Duncan appeared with a cadre of high-ranking veterans, including retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, urging passage in the U.S. Senate of a bill that includes support for the Early Learning Challenge Grant. The program would provide $1 billion annually over the next eight years to states to help them not only expand access to early-childhood education, but also pay for training that would ensure the programs are of high quality.
The House of Representatives passed the measure as part of a student financial-aid bill earlier this fall. (“House Loan Measure Would Free Up Cash for Early Education,” Sept. 23, 2009.)
Gen. Clark said he and the other retired officers hoped that attention brought to the “shocking” numbers would help convince Congress that the funding for early education was worthwhile.
“Don’t just think of this as a great thing to do for kids,” he said. “It’s a great thing to do for our country.”
Host of Concerns
The retired officers said they were concerned about the numbers of ineligible young people not only because the military will need more recruits, but also because of what a high dropout rate does to U.S. global competitiveness in industry.
They said the dropout rate—one in four high school students, according to the report—and problems with health and juvenile crime hamper America’s ability to develop the quantity and quality of people needed for military jobs.
“Human capital is the success this country is going to need for the 21st century,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. James W. Comstock.
While the military was able to make its recruiting goals for 2009, the retired officers say the nation can’t afford to assume that will always be the case. The ability to meet recruiting goals right now is helped in large part by the lagging economy, which has sent talented people looking for positions with the armed forces, they said.
“When the economy improves, we aren’t sure what will happen,” said retired Rear Adm. James A. Barnett Jr., a former director of naval education and training for the Defense Department.
Not only is the number of students dropping out of high school an issue, but those who go on to earn a General Educational Development certificate also often lack the math and reading skills needed for military service. The same is often true of students who earn a traditional diploma, the report said.
Investing in high-quality early-education programs, the group says, will give students a firm foundation to be more successful and reduce the amount of money the country is spending on attempts to stem the tide of societal ills.
Criminal records are another serious inhibitor for those attempting to join the armed forces. One in 10 young adults, the report says, can’t join the military because of at least one prior conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanor.
Childhood obesity also has implications for Americans later in life. Citing Army recruitment research, the report says 27 percent of young Americans are too overweight to join the military. Some 15,000 young recruits fail their entrance physicals each year, it says, because they weigh too much. Asthma, poor eyesight, and poor hearing are among the health problems that disqualify potential recruits.
“To ensure a strong, capable fighting force for the future, America’s youth must succeed academically, graduate from high school, be fit, and obey the law,” the report says.
The group’s funders include the Pew Charitable Trusts, which provides support for Education Week’s Quality Counts report.
A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Military Leaders Call Education, Health Woes a Threat