A good long time ago, the future governor of Mississippi and civilian head of the U.S. Navy, Ray Mabus, started his career in public service in the Navy, on the USS Little Rock.

The cruiser was a fighting ship, with a complement of 1,000 sailors. And Mabus recalled that experience recently in talking about education in the South.

The Navy secretary noted that the dramatic change in technology has made the Navy’s newest combat vessel, the littoral combat ship, into a weapons platform that can strike vastly farther than the guns of the USS Little Rock of four decades ago.

The LCS carries a crew of 40.

And, Mabus said in an essay for the Southern Growth Policies Board, “every job onboard the LCS requires technological savvy.”

“Sailors and Marines fix and operate the world’s most-complicated and best anti-air and anti-missile systems, hang ordnance on planes heading out for combat missions, or operate the nuclear power plant on a submarine, as well as hundreds of other missions,” Mabus noted. “These tasks do not just take intelligence, although that is crucial; they take the critical thinking that only a great education provides.”

For Mabus, as for uniformed leaders of the national services, the problems of recruiting young people with the educational capacity — not just bravery, or a wish for adventure — become multiplied by the complexity of today’s weapon systems.

Three serious problems prevent a young would-be sailor from serving: the lack of a high school diploma, an excess of body weight because of the South’s epidemic of obesity and criminal records that the services now cannot overlook as they might have in years past.

The educational component, the civilian teacher in the classroom, is thus critical to the armed services’ future capacity, Mabus wrote. His essay was to reflect on the issues raised by the Southern Growth board and its experts over the last 40 years, and 25 years after a groundbreaking report on the future of the Southern states.

In many ways, those years have seen significant progress in the South. Yet as Mabus noted in his comments, the nation is now lagging behind.

“Twenty-five years ago, the United States led the world in high school and college graduation rates. While there have been positive reports recently about increased graduation rates and a decrease in Southern states in so-called ‘dropout factories’ where graduation rates are below 60 percent, worldwide the nation is 20th in high school graduation rates, and 16th in college graduation rates,” Mabus noted. “More than 30 percent of Americans do not graduate from high school on time.”

In colleges, many students doing advanced work in science and technology, math and engineering — the so-called STEM disciplines — are from abroad. “More and more of those (STEM) students are from places like India and China, and they will take home that great education to help fuel their economies and develop their military capability, not ours,” Mabus said.

That costs money, as Mabus well knows, having had to balance budgets in Mississippi: “Federal and state governments must invest in education, and those investments must be protected, evaluated, and sustained, even when budgets are tight,” he said.

Perhaps Mabus is right that the public understands the value of making sustained investments in education, but his generation of leaders — included such governors as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Buddy Roemer of Louisiana, Bill Clinton of Arkansas — who were able to make successful pitches for increasing public spending on education.

Is that will still there, in an age in which the ascendant Republican Party puts tax cuts and private provision of education at the forefront?

Mabus said that failure to invest is not an option. “Whatever hard choices have to be made, whatever priorities have to be set, we simply have to give every child the ability to compete,” he said. The national-security implications of today’s education crisis should be part of the debate over whether we can afford to put more public money into education. We agree with Mabus: “Our nation’s security depends not just on how strong we are, but on how smart we are.”