“If you care about our national security, then, you’d better care about high-quality early childhood education.”
Interview with Amy Dawson Taggart
National Director, Mission: Readiness
Vice President, Council for a Strong America
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Mission: Readiness is the nonpartisan national security organization of over 500 retired admirals, generals, and other retired senior military leaders calling for smart investments in America’s children. It operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit Council for a Strong America.
Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?
Amy: It really goes back to a time in my early career when I was volunteering with my church in East Palo Alto, California back in the late ‘80s and it was the murder capital of country per capita. So, there in the shadow of Stanford and all that wealth was poverty. We would go in and we rented an apartment in a tenement complex and we cooked breakfast in the morning for the little kids who would come. We were able to provide nutritious food and tutoring and mentoring. They were so bright and smart and energized and happy and open to learning. And you would look out the door and there would be their older siblings, middle school and high school kids and it felt like they probably wanted to come in too, but, they were too cool. And, by that stage, it was really hard to imagine how many opportunities were going to be available to those kids. And, after a while of regularly experiencing this, I thought, I love what I am doing directly with these kids, but this is one kid at a time. I need to go up river and stop whoever is throwing them in. I need to go and look at how people are getting into these situations in the first place – needing so much. That was really my number one motivation.
Steven: What do you see is the role of Mission Readiness and the generals and admirals in improving the quality of early learning?
Amy: We’ve got 500 retired generals and admirals now who are deeply concerned about early childhood education because according to the Department of Defense more than 70% of all young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to join the military. And, when you look at the reasons, their physical fitness is certainly significant. Criminal record is important. But, but most of all, kids are academically unprepared. And far too many are not graduating from high school or even if they do, they can’t pass the military’s entrance exam. What we look at is that that poses a challenge for the 21st century military and the 21st century workforce. We’ve got to have the most technologically advanced military in the world. And, we need educated men and women to operate it. So, when you look at just what are some of the most successful interventions that are going to help kids ultimately succeed in school, all roads tend to lead to high quality early childhood education. Research shows high quality early education can prepare kids to start school, ready to learn. It boosts graduation rates. It cuts future crime rates. It can even impact obesity rates by instilling healthy eating and exercising habits from an early age. So, when you are an organization like ours that is focused on how to help kids stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble, all roads lead to high-quality early education.
And one of our top concerns is the tremendous unmet need for quality preschool. The most effective programs are only reaching a fraction of the kids who would benefit the most. More than two thirds of States are serving fewer than 30% of their 4-year olds and just a tiny fraction of their 3-year olds. And then, six States have no State-funded preschool at all. So, there’s no question. And as a mother of two little boys, I certainly believe this, that all of us share a responsibility as parents, as citizens, and as leaders, to make sure that our kids are well educated and healthy. And clearly, there’s also a role that government can and needs to play in increasing access to high quality early education. So, the retired generals and admirals of Mission Readiness consider this a national security issue because if we do not bring young people up to speed and get them in shape, we face serious social and economic consequences and that puts America’s security at risk.
Steven: Why do you think – I mean you kind of answered this already – but why do you think the President’s proposal to provide high quality learning and early development programs is important to our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?
Amy: Budgets are all about priorities, and finding new funding for programs is always a challenge so number one is just finding that political will to do what is going to be most effective. And that entails getting policy makers to look at the long-term cost-savings. Congress often tends to be concerned most with the current year deficit, not looking at the fact that investments like this can yield a return of $16 for every $1 invested. But, really, when I look at it, it’s an opportunity to work on an issue that research proves to be effective. Research clearly shows that early learning works. So, it’s not about whether we should have it or should not have it. But, rather how should early learning work and what are the national commitments to making sure all kids have access to high-quality early education.