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Op-Ed: Expand New Jersey’s Pre-K to Strengthen National Security

We urge state legislators to help our children develop in mind, body, and character so they can succeed in school and in life, including in the military for those who choose to serve

On left: Brigadier General (Ret.) Douglas Satterfield and Major General (Ret.) Steven Hashem

As U.S. Army generals, it was our job to look over the horizon to determine future challenges and threats to our national security. As we look over the horizon today, we believe one of the biggest challenges for our nation is that so many young Americans are simply not qualified for military service.

Nearly 70 percent of all young people in New Jersey between the ages of 17 and 24, and over 70 percent nationwide, are unable to join the military, according to the Department of Defense. The leading reasons are because they are too poorly educated, too overweight, or have a record of crime or drug abuse.

Consider these troubling statistics:

  • Among high school graduates in New Jersey who seek to enlist, more than one in four cannot score highly enough on the military's exam for math, literacy, and problem solving to join.

  • One-third of New Jersey youth ages 10-17 are overweight or obese.

  • There are 15 arrests for every 100 young adults ages 17-24 in our state.

Starting early

To address these challenges, we must start early. Children’s earliest years are a critical time during which the most rapid brain development happens. This foundation informs their cognition, health, and behavior throughout life.

Research shows that high-quality early education programs deliver real, measurable results in improving outcomes for kids. Such programs can prepare children to start school with critical early math and reading skills, improve student performance, boost graduation rates, deter youth from crime, and even reduce obesity rates by instilling healthy eating and exercise habits at a young age.

For example, a long-term study of the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan found that children who participated in the program were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school than children left out of the program. A similar study of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers showed that children who did not participate in the program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

A growing body of research also shows that state early education programs, if they are of high enough quality, can deliver solid results.

A new, national study from the Upjohn Institute analyzes thousands of public school district pre-K programs and finds that in states with high-quality programs, there are benefits persisting to at least fourth grade, with significant boosts to math scores.

Here in New Jersey, our state-funded preschool program has followed children through the fourth and fifth grades and found that, compared with a control group, the children served were three-fourths of a year ahead in math and two-thirds of a year ahead in literacy. They were also 31 percent less likely to be placed in special education and were held back 40 percent less often.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, New Jersey’s pre-K program meets 8 out of 10 quality benchmarks and the state has been a leader in providing high-quality preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds. However, NIEER also finds that high-quality preschool is only available in a small percent of New Jersey school districts because funding and enrollment have stalled in recent years.

The good news is that New Jersey now has the opportunity to provide high-quality early education to more children. Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed additional funding to expand access to pre-K funding in his budget. We urge state legislators to support this investment in our children to help them develop in mind, body and character so they can succeed in school and in life, including in the military for those who choose to serve.

Steven Hashem, a retired U.S. Army major general from Moorestown and Douglas Satterfield, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general from Galloway, are members of the national security organization Mission: Readiness.

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