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3. Armed Forces

HARRISBURG – Retired military officers joined the governor Tuesday to call for increased early childhood education spending and fairer school funding to help increase the number of high school students capable of meeting the requirements to join the Armed Services.

Seventy-one percent of Pennsylvanians, aged 17-24, aren’t eligible to join the military either because they have a criminal record, or they don’t have a high school diploma, can’t pass the entrance exam or don’t meet the physical health requirements, according to a report released Tuesday by Mission: Readiness, an organization comprised of 700 retired generals and admirals.

“If we do not address this trend, we will risk not having a sufficient pool of talented recruits to serve in our military or in our civilian work force in the future,” said Retired Army Lt. General Dennis Benchoff, a Lancaster resident.

When willingness to serve is factored into the equation, the numbers are even starker. In May, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that only 2% of young people nationwide are eligible “and have a propensity to serve.”

Low unemployment, coupled with competition from private employers, translated into the U.S. Army missing its 2018 recruiting goal by 8.5%, according to the Mission: Readiness report.

“I am committed to making investments in education at all ages to help ensure we provide Pennsylvanians with the skills needed for every open job and that includes positions with the Pennsylvania National Guard and all branches of the military,” Gov. Wolf said. “These investments start in the earliest years of life, when children are learning soft skills such as teamwork, time management and good communication.”

The Mission: Readiness report called for increased spending on early childhood education and fairer school funding to combat the problem.

Air Force Retired Lt. General Ralph Jodice, of Hanover, said that improving school funding will translate into smaller class sizes, and allow schools to offer science and technology classes that will prepare students for life after high school.

Because of Pennsylvania’s heavy reliance on property taxes for school funding, the state has one of the widest gaps in school spending between the wealthy and poorest of school districts, he said.

That gap is particularly significant when talking about preparing graduates for possible military service, said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, because some of the state’s poorest school districts are in areas “with the strongest tradition of military service.”

Funding early childhood education is important because it’s easier to give young students a leg up at the start than to try and catch them up later, Jodice said.

“Research is clear that brain development from birth to age 5 sets the foundation for children’s future success,” he said. “High-quality child care and early education programs like pre-k set the stage for readiness by improving children’s cognitive ability, health and behavior throughout life.”

Wolf said that since he took office, he has worked with the General Assembly to boost school spending and provide additional investment for early childhood education.

But Wolf said he’s committed to working to improve access to high-quality early childhood education and increase funding for K-12 schools.

“They are saying what we all know,” Wolf said. “Education matters.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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