The Pentagon and JROTC Invade Sacramento

by Marc Norton on March 31, 2009

The sponsors of AB 351 tell the tale. Assemblywoman Mary Salas is from that most military of cities in California, San Diego. Assemblyman Michael Duvall is a Republican from Yorba Linda in Orange County. San Francisco’s own Assemblywoman Fiona Ma has now joined forces with these two legislators to lead the Pentagon’s latest surge, this time not into Iraq or Afghanistan, but into Sacramento.

Tomorrow, the Pentagon’s youngest recruits, the youth from JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps), will hold forth before the TV cameras on the steps of the State Capitol. They will be there to support the Salas/Ma/Duvall bill that would allow school districts to give Physical Education (PE) credit to JROTC cadets, reversing bipartisan efforts in recent years to strengthen PE standards in the face of the declining physical fitness of our youth.

The JROTC troops will also be there to support Ma’s AB 223, which would have the state legislature require San Francisco to keep the JROTC program in our schools, a clear violation of every precedent about local control of education. Should Ma’s bill become law, San Francisco will be the only city in the country that is required by law to hand over its 14 and 15 year old students to the Pentagon’s favorite military recruitment program.

Both bills will be up for a hearing before the Assembly Education Committee tomorrow afternoon.

Retired US Army Colonel Gerald E. Webb, in his capacity as President of the Association of the United States Army, San Diego Chapter, has written a letter in support of AB 351. His support is no surprise, but one might be surprised by his reference to a “recent letter of concern from Secretary of Defense Gates” which allegedly “indicated that JROTC has been given physical education credit in California historically.” We don’t have access to that letter, at least not yet, but the apparent intervention of the Pentagon’s boss in support of AB 351 and JROTC, the very man charged with leading the surge into Afghanistan, ought to raise a few eyebrows.

“There is no good reason for the Pentagon to drive educational policy in California,” says Marko Matillano, the coordinator of Military Out of Our Schools in San Francisco, the organization that is leading the charge to let JROTC close up shop in San Francisco in June, in line with school board policy since 2006.

It is true enough that JROTC has historically used PE credit as a recruiting tool. PE credit has been handed out like candy to freshmen and sophomores looking to avoid gym class. But no one ever did any real studies about the relationship of PE to JROTC. Until recently, that is, when the San Diego school district sought to study this question, apparently hoping to bolster the case for giving PE credit to the military program. Unfortunately for the JROTC spin doctors, the San Diego study actually “demonstrated that JROTC students fell well behind students in regular PE,” according to San Diego analyst Rick Jahnkow of The Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities. Oh well.

Ironically, Assemblywoman Ma issued a press release just last week citing “obesity” as the “most common disorder among teens.” The epidemic of obesity among our youth has been one of the major reasons for tightening up PE standards in recent years, the very same PE standards that Ma, Salas and Duvall now seek to relax on behalf of the Pentagon.

The reason for the Pentagon’s desire to insure that they can entice young students into their military program with PE credit is displayed clearly in San Francisco. When PE credit was withdrawn from JROTC this school year, enrollment plummeted by over two-thirds, from a recent high of 1,600 students to 500. Most of those 500 are seniors and juniors who first got into the program as freshmen, back when they got PE credit. The JROTC enrollment among freshmen last year was meager, a total of 74 among the seven high schools offering the program.

“We’re watching the San Francisco situation very closely,” said Curtis Gilroy, an official in the Defense Department’s office for personnel and military readiness, according to an Associated Press report late last year.

Ma’s legislative partner in the Pentagon’s onslaught on California education policy, Republican Assemblyman Duvall, is doing more than watching closely. On the very same day that he signed onto AB 351, he introduced two other bills. One of these bills seeks to “provide equal access to military recruiters at public school fairs.” Ma’s repeated statements pretending that JROTC is not a military recruitment program stands in stark contrast to her ally’s eager promotion of military recruitment in our schools. Duvall’s other bill of the day would make it illegal to use “the names of fallen soldiers on political paraphernalia [think T-shirts] without the consent of the next of kin.” God forbid that we might find out the names of fallen former-JROTC cadets.

Duvall would undoubtedly love the San Francisco Examiner, the most outspoken supporter in the city of the Pentagon’s efforts to preserve JROTC. The paper has run a slew of supportive articles in recent weeks. For those with short memories, the Examiner also proudly endorsed Republican John McCain for President not long ago. Despite the fact that the Examiner tabloid is clearly way out of sync with San Francisco voters in regard to party loyalty, it may end up being the only daily in the city before long, if the San Francisco Chronicle folds as has been widely predicted.

The Examiner last week ran an editorial titled “Keep JROTC a free choice for high schoolers.” This is an unfortunate choice of words, as JROTC is far from free. Official school district figures clearly demonstrate that the program costs school district taxpayers about one million dollars per year.

In these tough economic times, million dollar bills don’t grow on trees – unless you are the Pentagon, of course. It is startling that the Pentagon, with its way-north-of-$500 billion budget, has the gall and the juice to foist most of the cost of its JROTC program onto local school districts.

Last week, testifying before the San Francisco school board, it was the youth from HOMEY (Homies Organizing in the Mission to Empower Youth) who best spoke truth to power about JROTC. “Teachers are being laid off, programs are being cut, schools are being closed,” said Alexandra, “and you want to give us a military program? The military has a track record of targeting people of color and people from poor communities.”

“We need education,” said Eric, another speaker from HOMEY, “not someone to teach us it is ok to kill for the government. Where is JROTC when my homies get killed?”

It ought to be a fascinating hearing on Wednesday.

If you want to let the Assembly Education Committee know what you think, their contact info is here. I’m sure they would love to hear from you. Let them know you oppose both bills, because they violate local control, because they dangerously weaken PE standards, and because the Pentagon should not be driving educational policy in California.

For more info, check out the No Military Recruitment in Our Schools website, or my website listed below.


Copyright © 2009 by Marc Norton

Marc Norton is a bellman at a small hotel in downtown San Francisco. He has two sons who attended Alvarado Elementary, James Lick Middle and Lowell High schools. Contact him at nortonsf@ix.netcom.com, or through his website at www.MarcNorton.us.

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