I hesitated for a long time before putting up this issues page, because I am fundamentally ambivalent about JROTC. I grew up in Berkeley, proudly anti-war, anti-military and pro-radical thinking.
When I began this campaign to be elected to the school board, I truly thought the debate over ending the JROTC program was a minor issue facing the schools, and had been largely decided by the school board’s vote to phase out the program in 2006. I knew there had been promises of a replacement program, and assumed plans were proceeding. I had heard rumblings that there was an opposition campaign getting organized, but in all honesty, JROTC was not high on the list of issues that prompted me to run for the Board of Education.
Like many people in San Francisco, I oppose the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gays in the military, I oppose military recruiting in high schools and I oppose the war in Iraq – and in some people’s minds, JROTC is associated with all of these things. I have to say that for a long time I assumed that the San Francisco JROTC program was a military recruiting operation, that it discriminated against LGBT people, and that it was kind of a creepy throwback to a previous, more pro-military era. When the school board voted to end it, I was disturbed by the spectacle of so many kids pleading to save their program, but I truly believed we would not end JROTC before another, comparable program was in place.
Between 2006 and 2009, there was almost no movement on a replacement program. JROTC opponents point out that the committee charged with finding such a program was stacked with JROTC proponents, and say that these proponents successfully obstructed the committee’s work. Even if this is true — and it may well be — the school board promised that it would not leave the students who chose JROTC without a program. And yet, two years later, no program existed. The school district piloted an ethnic studies course, which might be valuable but is no replacement for the combination of physical activity, structure and public service that JROTC combines.
The alternative I like best is a proposal for a kind of NERT-training that combines physical conditioning with public service and trains kids for the structure they might encounter at the police and fire academies. I say we should absolutely start putting such an alternative together. Federal and state grant money exists to fund it, and it serves a public need. But time and careful planning will be needed to do this right; at the moment district staff have informed us that they think the best course is to create a SERV (Student Emergency Response Volunteers) unit as an afterschool program. And in the meantime, I take seriously the promise that the school board originally made to the students who came by the hundreds to plead for the program they feel makes their school experience meaningful and worthwhile.
I have also spent time talking with the instructors and cadets in the program. I’ve heard cadets describe their intent to go to college and talk about the physical conditioning and leadership skills they had learned in the JROTC program. I’ve been assured by the instructors that participation in the program does not lead to recruiting by the military; and that gay, lesbian or transgender students or instructors are never turned away. I’ve learned that this is a program that offers kids in San Francisco a much-needed sense of structure and belonging.
The question I think we should be asking is, what are we doing in this district to increase graduation rates, keep at-risk kids in school, and encourage kids to go to college? The JROTC program is demonstrably accomplishing all of these things at the seven school sites where it exists. Consider the experience at Balboa High School, which has an overall graduation rate of about 75 percent. In 2008, about half of Balboa’s 230 graduates had taken at least one semester of JROTC in their time at the school. Of those, there were zero enlistments. Three graduates indicated plans to enroll in vocational training and the rest enrolled in colleges and universities across the state of California.
But it’s almost impossible to talk about JROTC in a nuanced way, or suggest anything approaching a compromise. Opponents shout down anything other than a complete end to the program — even if safeguards are put in place to make sure the class is purely voluntary. And proponents refuse to acknowledge the fact that an alternative is possible and that some of the military trappings of the program make some people uneasy. In the end, I have come down in favor of reinstating the program, because I think the good it does far outweighs the bad associations people have with a military-sponsored program. I also have pledged to work to create a true alternative, so that families who want the benefits of JROTC without the military connection have that to choose from.
In May 2009, the Board of Education voted to reinstate the JROTC program for the 2009-10 school year and beyond. A month later, the Board voted to amend the district’s independent study policy to include students taking a JROTC course, allowing them to satisfy physical education requirements through independent study. SFUSD has posted a fact sheet for those interested in learning more about the 2006-09 fight over JROTC.