Is early education a national security concern?

A group of retired senior military officials says: Yes.

“Without enough skilled men and women available to serve in tomorrow’s armed services, we endanger the future strength of our military,” says a report by Mission: Readiness, an advocacy group representing hundreds of senior retired military leaders.

The best way to improve that talent pool? Early education, the report says.

The D.C.-based organization is banking on the economic, social and academic benefits shown in long-term preschool studies to turn around a troublesome trend: 75 percent of the country’s 17- to 24-year-olds are ineligible for military service because they are poorly educated, have criminal records, or are overweight or otherwise unhealthy.

In addition to such reports as “Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve” and “Too Fat to Fight,” the group recently published an analysis of the national security benefits to President Obama’s early education proposal.

It also has produced analyses of pre-kindergarten access in different states and regions, including a 2013 comparison of preschool programs in the Washington area called “Pre-K Around the Beltway.”

The report found stark disparities. In Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, all eligible children from low-income families were able to enroll in publicly funded pre-kindergarten. The District of Columbia offers universal preschool to three and four-year olds, although some programs had wait lists.

In Virginia, an underfunded state pre-kindergarten program is not reaching thousands of eligible children, because local governments are not paying the required matching funds.

The report singles out Fairfax County, where just 1,119 of the 2,545 state-funded slots for pre-kindergarten were filled in the 2012-2013 school year, leaving more than half of eligible children unserved.

“In Fairfax County alone, we still have hundreds and hundreds of kids on the waiting list,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip of Alexandria, a member of Mission: Readiness. “The fact of the matter is we are not funding it the way we should.”

In contrast, Arlington County was using all its state-funded slots, and Alexandria was using almost all of them. The report did not include Prince William County, which qualified for enough state funding this year to provide pre-kindergarten to more than 1,600 children but serves just 72.

Part of the problem: The high cost of living in Virginia and a per-student funding limit that has not increased since 2008.

“It's time to go back to Richmond and look at what the funding level is,” Seip said.

The retired generals are the spokespeople and lobbyists for Mission: Readiness.

“We’re often the unexpected messenger,” Seip said. “When we walk in the door and talk to a senator or congressman or a local Board of Education, we say, ‘We are retired general officers and we are concerned about two-year olds.’ It gives them pause.”