A Liberal’s View on JROTC

How did a longtime liberal/progressive who has demonstrated against wars from Vietnam to Iraq become the San Francisco school board’s champion of JROTC in our schools?

People have been asking me that question since the JROTC issue erupted in San Francisco and hit the national news.

A Sunday Chronicle article, “Pitched battle over ROTC in S.F. schools,” summed up the current situation in that saga: “The 90-year-old JROTC will end in June [2009] – unless the district school board has an 11th-hour change of heart sometime before then. A Nov. 4 ballot measure, Proposition V, hopes to sway the board with a nonbinding vote of public support for the program.”

It’s especially unfortunate that the Board of Education voted in June to eliminate PE credit for JROTC. (I was the lone vote for keeping PE credit, with two board members absent for that meeting.) That meant a rush of students who had been in JROTC enrolled in PE, forcing our schools to hire seven new PE teachers. But it was too late to eliminate the JROTC classes that suddenly lost their enrollment, so we have to spend almost $1 million to pay those now-unneeded JROTC instructors. That’s $1 million that was desperately needed for other classroom needs.

I’m far from the only liberal in this paradoxical situation – becoming a visible supporter of a program run by the military. Like others, I have a longtime record that would look far-left to middle America. I marched against the Vietnam war. I opposed the Bush wars and went to demonstrations against the Iraq war.

But I have learned that progressive politics does not exist in a vacuum. We have to consider the practical realities: how do our decisions affect real students and schools every day?

Simply put, many students have benefited from JROTC. I know one formerly unfocused, socially unsure young man who gained direction from the organized, structured environment JROTC provided, took new responsibility for his academic achievement, and got on track toward college. Another high-achieving African-American student found that JROTC gave her an avenue to be a leader while supporting her academic work. Neither of those young people joined the military, and both went on to success in college and careers.

JROTC opponents cite the U.S. military’s anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Yet in San Francisco, JROTC has provided support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students. At the height of the controversy, a transgendered JROTC member contacted school board members. Then female, she was closeted in her immigrant home. She offered to come out at a board meeting and say publicly that hurting students would not help efforts to overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Fearing that her home life would implode, we urged her not to speak publicly. But the student later changed gender, came out to his parents, and has continued to speak in favor of JROTC.

I have been incredibly moved by several gay cadets who say that JROTC has helped them deal with their sexuality and that they have experience no homophobia there.

Outside schools, JROTC cadets’ work benefits the community. JROTC frequently provides volunteers for gay community events, children’s and family events run by Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, and projects in public schools.

If JROTC goes away, the military policies we deplore do not disappear. Yet our students have fewer opportunities, and our school district becomes once again the target of Republican members of Congress and the administration, not to mention the right-wing media. The requirement in the No Child Left Behind law that school districts allow military recruiters into schools got support in Congress after the author referenced “school districts like San Francisco” in committee and on the House floor.

For the sake of our students and our schools, I’m supporting Prop. V on the November ballot, and will continue to speak for keeping JROTC in our schools.

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