Quality Pre-K Important for Workforce, Military

Hugh McDonald and Maj. Gen. William D. Wofford Commentary

Quality Pre-K Important for Workforce, Military

As the former president and CEO of Entergy Arkansas and as the former adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard, we know from personal experience that one of the keys to success in business and in the military is the ability to look over the horizon and anticipate future challenges and opportunities. When we look over the horizon, we see both a major challenge for Arkansas and an excellent opportunity to strengthen our state and nation.

First, the challenge. Too many young people in Arkansas are not “citizen ready.” What does this mean? Seventeen percent of young adults in Arkansas are not employed or in school, 13 out of every 100 have an arrest record, and 74 percent are ineligible for military service, primarily because they are too poorly educated, too overweight or have a record of crime or drug abuse.

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The nonprofit Council for a Strong America compiled these indicators from state and national sources and assigned each state a grade based on them. Arkansas was one of only seven states that received an “E,” the lowest grade.

This means that Arkansas businesses and the military will be drawing from the same shrinking pool of youth with the education and skills needed to succeed. We must turn this around.

And this is where the opportunity comes in. Research shows that the early years of a child’s life are critically important for later learning, behaviors and health. This explains why high-quality early education can boost graduation rates, deter youth from crime and even reduce obesity rates by instilling healthy eating and exercise habits at a young age.

Long-term studies of early education programs show impressive outcomes. For example, children who participated in Michigan’s Perry Preschool project were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

While most state preschool programs have not been around long enough to measure outcomes into adulthood, programs that have invested in quality have already demonstrated strong results, such as increases in reading and math scores that persist through elementary school, fewer behavior problems, less need for special education and fewer students held back.

In our state, a study of the Arkansas Better Chance public pre-K program found meaningful impacts on children’s early language, pre-literacy and pre-math skills. Compared with students outside the program, the at-risk 4-year-olds participating in ABC were four months ahead in vocabulary, had a 37 percent increase in pre-math scores and answered 23 percent more questions correctly on a literacy test after one year.

The impact of early education on math skills is particularly significant. The importance of math and technology is increasing across many professions, including the energy industry and the military, the two areas with which we are most familiar.

In addition to academic skills, quality early education helps children develop social skills — such as working well with others, managing emotions and making good decisions — that are critical for success in both the private sector and in the armed forces.

Finally, early education is also good for the economy. A cost-benefit analysis of nearly 20 different studies of pre-K programs showed that high-quality preschool can return, on average, $29,000 to society for every child served. This return comes primarily from reductions in crime, special education and grade retention, and increased labor market earnings.

We are grateful that Arkansas legislators saw the benefits of high-quality pre-K when they expanded access to the Arkansas Better Chance program more than a decade ago. In fact, Arkansas ranks third in the nation for public pre-K access for 3-year-olds and 12th in access for 4-year-olds.

But access is only part of the equation. To attain lasting results, programs must be of high quality. The coordinator of Arkansas State University’s Childhood Services recently said that the state needs more early education teachers who are trained in childhood brain development. This is the type of training that can lead to higher quality and more effective pre-K programs.

We urge Arkansas policymakers to prioritize funding to improve the quality of the state pre-K program. Ensuring young children have a strong start in life is a proven opportunity to meet the workforce development and military readiness challenges in the years to come.

Hugh McDonald was president and CEO of Entergy Arkansas. Retired Maj. Gen. William D. Wofford was the adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard.