Ma’s JROTC bill needs to die

Pub date February 10, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL With California in a cataclysmic budget crisis and a long list of problems on the agenda of the state Legislature, Assemblymember Fiona Ma has announced a bill that would force the San Francisco school district to bring back a military recruitment program. It’s an unusual tactic, and one with questionable legal grounds. It’s also inappropriate and bad public policy.

The school board has been debating the Junior Reserve Officers Training Program for years. Supporters promote the program, which costs the district $1 million a year, as a leadership training opportunity; for a lot of district kids, it was an alternative way to meet a physical education requirement. In reality, though, JROTC is, and always has been, part of the Pentagon’s effort to convince young people to join the military.

High school students, the target of the program, have always been vulnerable to recruiters. That’s why the military brass love anything that gets them into high schools. JROTC cadets are besieged with recruitment calls, and those efforts continue even after the kids have left the program.

The local queer community has been pushing hard to end JROTC in San Francisco, in part because of the Pentagon’s ridiculous don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy on gay service members. But even after that policy ends (and under President Barack Obama, it’s likely gay people will be serving openly in the military soon), JROTC is a terrible program for the San Francisco schools. If the best leadership training this progressive city can offer is through a model based on the values of the Army, something is very wrong.

And that’s what the school board ultimately decided. The board has voted to discontinue JROTC, as of this summer, and is moving to adopt an alternative leadership program.

But a few JROTC supporters, with the assistance of the local Republican Party, placed an advisory measure on the November 2008 ballot calling for the program’s continuation. With most activist energy going to support the Obama campaign and the efforts to elect progressive supervisors, the measure passed. But it contained no legal mandate, and the school board members, even those who support JROTC, have generally agreed that it would be a bad idea to revisit the issue. A clear majority of the board is prepared to let JROTC die and replace it with something better.

We can’t figure out why Ma has suddenly decided to make this a state issue. She told us that "the voters of San Francisco have spoken, and all I am doing is upholding the will of the voters." But the voters also elected school board members who think it’s best to eliminate JROTC.

More important, this simply isn’t Sacramento’s business. The Ma bill needs a two-thirds vote to pass, which means it depends on Republican support — and as Assemblymember Tom Ammiano says, "Do we really want the Republicans in the state Legislature to tell San Francisco what to do?" Even School Board member Hydra Mendoza, who supports JROTC, is opposing the bill: "It’s not appropriate," she told us, "for the state Legislature to overturn a decision of the San Francisco school board."

This would set a horrible precedent: every time the city schools took a progressive stand on some program, someone in Sacramento could come along and try to undo it.

Mayor Gavin Newsom should speak out against this bill, and Ma should withdraw it. If she doesn’t, the Legislature should reject it. *