Kelley Watson, a preschool teacher at Penquis Head Start in Bangor reads a book to children in her class, Aug. 5, 2014. Credit: Brian Feulner

What do a former Head Start director and a retired Air Force general have in common?

Both of us believe that our state needs to invest in high-quality early childhood education, an effective way to address a number of challenges Maine and our country face.

Maine is in the top three states in the country for veterans per capita. We have a proud tradition of service. And in the military, human capital is even more important than building ships or jets. If we don’t have people with the physical and mental fitness to serve, our military will be significantly less effective, and our country will be less safe.

We also need to look at the problems faced by Bangor and other communities throughout Maine. We have young families who would work more but can’t afford child care, which in turn contributes to our workforce shortage. We have grandparents caring for young children as a result of our growing opioid crisis. And we have disadvantaged kids who are at risk of starting school behind their peers and not being able to catch up.

Expanding high-quality early childhood education in Maine will help address these problems.

From a military readiness perspective, children who have access to quality early education are more likely to be prepared for success in school and in life — including joining the military, if they choose that path. We are facing a readiness crisis with only three in 10 young people eligible for military service, and the skills and abilities learned during early childhood are essential to putting our future servicemembers in a position to be effective.

From an early education provider perspective, we know that our work makes the lives of kids and families better. Quality early education provides kids with a strong foundation, helps parents stay in or join the workforce, and has an immediate and long-term economic impact.

Despite all of these benefits, only 39 percent of Maine 4-year-olds were enrolled in public pre-kindergarten programs in 2016-17, and only 31.5 percent of eligible Maine children participated in Head Start in FY 2016. Further, only about 7,800 child care vouchers are available, serving just 15 percent of the nearly 52,000 eligible children in Maine.

Quality early childhood education programs like pre-K and Head Start need serious investment and support. They’re proven to be effective by years of study and deserve bipartisan backing from the Legislature.

We are hopeful that Maine’s newly elected leaders — Gov.-elect Janet Mills and legislators from every corner of our state — take this opportunity to improve our state. We are heartened by reports that early childhood education will be a priority of the incoming administration and we know that progress on this issue is possible.

We need to bolster these programs and make sure that key departments in the administration, like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education, are focused on making it easier for kids and families to access quality early childhood education.

We call on our new governor and legislature to work together in the best bipartisan tradition of Maine to invest in a significant expansion of high-quality early education. We can think of no more urgent task for the state in the coming months.

Heidi LeBlanc is the chief operating officer of Penquis. Nelson Durgin of Bangor is a retired U.S. Air Force major general.