Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

If you want to have a decent military 10 years from now, support education now

we can expect the slashes to the education budget to halt the little educational momentum we have achieved in the last couple of decades.

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By Karin Chenoweth
Best Defense bureau of military-educational affairs

If the goal is to produce young people who seek to join the military because it represents the only available route to improving their health, nutrition, and education, then the president’s proposed budget represents a set of policies that can’t really be beat.

Here’s the problem: The probability is that even more of those people lining up in front of the recruitment stations will be too unhealthy and too uneducated to join the military because the president’s increased military funding comes directly from programs that support the health, nutrition, and education of young people.

By Karin Chenoweth
Best Defense bureau of military-educational affairs

If the goal is to produce young people who seek to join the military because it represents the only available route to improving their health, nutrition, and education, then the president’s proposed budget represents a set of policies that can’t really be beat.

Here’s the problem: The probability is that even more of those people lining up in front of the recruitment stations will be too unhealthy and too uneducated to join the military because the president’s increased military funding comes directly from programs that support the health, nutrition, and education of young people.

And let’s face it — it’s not as if we’re starting at a great level. Back in 2009 Dr. Curtis Gilroy, one of the Pentagon’s experts on personnel and readiness, testified before Congress that:

We have an obesity problem amongst our youth, and we have an education crisis as well. Seventy to 75 percent of young people today have a high school diploma, a bona fide high school diploma. That is a sad state of affairs. So when we add all of the qualifiers we find that only 25 percent of our young people today age 17 to 24 are qualified for military service. Not a good situation.

In fact, even when students have what Gilroy calls a “bona fide high school diploma” they don’t necessarily qualify. About one-fifth of high school graduates who took the ASVAB exam from 2003 to 2009 (the last years the data is available) didn’t achieve the qualifying score for enlistment.

Those data prompted a group of retired admirals and generals to promote policies that would keep kids in school, healthy, and fit (Mission: Readiness.) The good news is that, since 2009, academic achievement and graduation rates have inched up and childhood obesity inched down, at least among young children.

But ground that took years to gain could easily be lost.

Alabama gives us a picture of what that could look like: In 2002, Alabama’s fourth-grade reading scores were well below the national average as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. After a whole lot of work by educators throughout the state, Alabama’s fourth-grade reading scores were right at the national average in 2010. That gave lots of reasons to congratulate Alabamians and encourage them to keep going — but then the 2008 economic crash happened. Alabama politicians cut school budgets by about 17 percent and never restored them in the recovery. Reading scores dropped in both 2013 and 2015, so Alabama is once again well below the national average.

It’s not possible to draw a direct line between budgets and achievement one way or another. But it’s hard not to think there might be some kind of relationship in this case.

Which means that we can expect the slashes to the education budget to halt the little educational momentum we have achieved in the last couple of decades.

One of the potentially disastrous cuts to the U.S. Department of Education is one that may not get much ink but should resonate with the military. The president’s budget proposal guts Title II of the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA. Title II is a major part of how schools and districts fund training for teachers and school leaders. The field of education hasn’t always understood the importance of leadership — but just as it is finally coming around, the funding for it has come under attack.

When he was Commander of U.S. Central Command, Secretary of Defense James Mattis famously told Congress, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Those words were echoed by a letter signed by more than 120 retired generals and admirals in answer to the president’s proposed cuts to the State Department.

But State Department cuts aren’t the only cuts to worry about.

Karin Chenoweth is writer-in-residence for The Education Trust and author of several books about turning around American schools, most recently Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal Systems for Improvement (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

Image credit: Amazon.com

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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