Blog | August 3, 2020

A Crack in the Keel

High-quality early childhood care and education programs in California need our support to stay afloat

Rear Admiral (Ret.) James Rodman

A keel laying is a significant event in the life of a ship. Most deem it the day a vessel is born. In modern times, a ship must overcome significant hurdles including design, budget, and the acquisition process before this celebrated event. Shortly after the laying of the keel, a trial of complexity and promise unfolds, as construction advances through logistical and engineering progression, toward the commissioning and service in the fleet.

The birth of a ship, the challenges it must overcome, and the ultimate goal of service are analogous to a journey many young Americans face on the road from childhood to adulthood. We see the connection between these challenges and national security in the alarming fact that 71 percent of young adults ages 17 to 24 cannot qualify for military service because they are not academically prepared, are too overweight, or have a record of crime or drug abuse.[1]

Several factors combine to create this immense impediment to our potential recruiting pool. Nationwide, roughly one in five high school students do not graduate on time. Of those who do graduate, another one in five cannot score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify.[2]

Matters are made worse with the obesity epidemic. Children as young as two are experiencing rising obesity rates, which increase with age. In 2009-2010, the obesity rate for 12-to-19-year-olds was 18.4 percent. By 2015-2016, the rate had increased to 21 percent.[3] By 2017, it had grown to 31 percent.[4]

Furthermore, the military needs recruits to have a clean record. Yet, one in 10 young Americans is barred from serving because of a felony or serious misdemeanor.

Left unchecked, the cumulative impact of these factors will not only threaten our children’s futures and burden the U.S. healthcare system, it could damage our national security.

Fortunately, there are evidence-based programs that our civilian leaders can support to counteract this projected damage. High-quality early education programs can provide the foundation for a child’s future success. The birth-to-age-five time frame is the most dramatic period of brain development and informs children’s cognition, health, and behavior throughout life.[5]

Research shows that children who attend high-quality early education programs are better prepared for kindergarten, perform stronger academically, and are less likely to be placed in special education. They are also more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to turn to crime, resulting in long-term cost savings.[6]

Furthermore, studies show that high-quality early education programs here in California and across the country are improving school readiness, increasing academic achievement, and helping children’s interpersonal skills.

When combined with high-quality preschool, child care can have an even greater impact on academic achievement, as well as cognitive, social, and emotional development. Yet, the stakes remain high for families who must balance earning a living wage with the needs for their children who require nurturing, stimulating environments for healthy brain development during the first three years of life.[7]

The disruptions caused by COVID-19 intensify this problem in California, where an estimated 75% of the state-funded child care system serves children of essential workers.[8] Today’s emergency response environment provides a vivid reminder that continued investments in child care is vital for working families.

When managing a crisis, it’s important to stay focused on the horizon and embrace the long view. Imagine, fifteen years from now, our warships may be crewed by newly recruited sailors who today (under normal conditions) would be sitting around the carpet in their early childhood programs. For many of those children, their ship’s keel has been laid and, sadly, cracks have been revealed. Their ability to persevere and become well-educated, physically fit, and prepared for productive lives is inextricably linked to the decisions we make today. Investing in high-quality early education and care programs, especially during this unprecedented health emergency, will be essential to giving today’s children the future they deserve.

[1] U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies. (2016). The target population for military recruitment: youth eligible to enlist without a waiver. Documents/General%20Documents. [2] The Education Trust. Shut Out of the Military: Today’s High School Education Doesn’t Mean You’re Ready for Today’s Army. (2010). [3] The State of Obesity. (2019). National obesity monitor. [4] Department of Defense. (2017). Qualified Military Available (QMA). Acquired from the Accession Policy and Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies teams at DoD in November 2017. Also see Jordan, M. (2014, June).Recruits’ ineligibility tests the military. Wall Street Journal.; DoD analysis of the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). There are similar findings in an independent study, Cawley, J., & Maclean, J.C. (2010). Unfit for service: The implications of rising obesity for US Military recruitment. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. [5] Harvard Center for the Developing Child (n.d.). InBrief: The science of early childhood development. https:// Education Sciences. http:// [6] Meloy, B., Gardner, M., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). Untangling the evidence on preschool effectiveness: Insights for policymakers. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. [7] Child Trends. (2016). DataBank: Child Care. [8] California Early Childhood Education (ECE) Coalition. Written testimony submitted to the California State Assembly Committee on Budget – Sub 2 Education Finance.


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