By Mark Schweiker
and William B. Lynch
This election season might feel more raucous than any in U.S. history, but at the heart of all campaigns are the issues that never change. Since this nation was founded, Americans have gone to the polls because they want better lives for themselves and bright futures for their children.
Those who have spent time in public service and the armed forces are acutely aware that we have a duty to help all children achieve their potential as productive, contributing citizens.
However, if we merely hope that children grow up to be tomorrow's leaders and innovators, we're gambling on an issue critical to this nation's survival. As the Council for a Strong America has found, too many children are unprepared for the workforce, unqualified for the military, and mired in crime at a young age.
The council is a national, bipartisan nonprofit that unites five organizations comprising law enforcement leaders, retired admirals and generals, business executives, pastors, and prominent coaches and athletes. Together, we promote solutions that ensure our next generation of Americans will be citizen-ready, and to mark its 20th year, the council has just released the 2016 Citizen-Readiness Index.
Citizen-readiness encompasses the positive capabilities and traits acquired in childhood that lay the groundwork for productive adulthoods. This report reveals those junctures where children fall short of their potential - perhaps with lifelong consequences - and offers research-based solutions grounded in early childhood to assure that kids start life on a productive path, and stay there.
The index grades states on their performance, and if this were a child's report card, many states would go to bed without supper. More than three-quarters of states earned a grade of C or worse. Sadly, Pennsylvania earned a D. The Keystone State nearly fails on the three criteria of citizen readiness:
13 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 are unemployed and not in school. What are they doing with their time? Certainly not learning new skills to improve their employability and earning power.
13 youth out of 100 ages 17 to 24 have an arrest record. This early entanglement with the criminal justice system can create a damaging ripple effect for years to come.
72 percent of youth ages 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service due to problems with obesity, education, drug abuse, or crime. The implications are sobering. Our nation cannot rely on three out of four young Pennsylvanians to serve their country. As retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mike Hall said, "It begs the question, if you aren't qualified to serve in the military, what else are you not qualified to do?"
Fortunately, the index recommends a solution - investments in research-based policies to assure that children start strong and grow up healthy.
First, we can support strong families through expanding resources for evidence-based home visiting services. These voluntary programs send trained professionals into the homes of vulnerable new parents to educate them on health, nutrition, learning opportunities, and appropriate discipline. Evidence shows that home-visiting programs reduce incarcerations of mothers and their daughters, boost family self-sufficiency, and improve children's learning abilities.
Second, we can further advance early education. Preparing children for success in school improves their future qualifications for good jobs and military service, while it also deflects involvement in crime. Unfortunately, more than 120,000 of Pennsylvania's eligible 3- and 4-year-olds still lack access to PA Pre-K Counts and state-funded Head Start.
Pennsylvania has a long history of supporting early learning. It began in the Schweiker administration with an Early Childhood Care and Education Task Force that led to the establishment and growth of pre-k opportunities under Govs. Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett. Most recently under Gov. Wolf, quality pre-k saw the single largest expansion since its inception. In each instance, legislators joined Pennsylvania's governors in making this a priority for the commonwealth.
This is not the time to halt our momentum. We must continue our commitments to early childhood in order to build entire generations capable of joining the workforce, avoiding crime, and serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Supporting further investments in prekindergarten and home-visiting programs, helps to ensure that all children have the brightest future we can provide. It's also a commitment to the security and economic vitality of our communities and commonwealth.