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Army Accused of Promoting Private Schools

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Public-school officials in San Francisco are claiming that the U.S. Army is harming their district's reputation and financial position by providing free transportation to private schools for the children of personnel living on a nearby military base.

According to school-district officials, 215 of the 474 pupils attending kindergarten through the 5th grade who live at The Presidio of San Francisco Army installation ride military buses every day to private schools in the area. Their absence from the city's public schools results in a loss to the district of $412,000 in state aid and approximately $300,000 in federal impact-aid payments, school officials contend.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lieut. Col. Erik Opsahl, said last week that the Department of Defense "has no way of knowing precisely how many children nationwide ride military buses to private schools."

"The decision to bus these children to private schools is strictly a matter of the local base commander's discretion," Colonel Opsahl explained.

According to Barbara Cohen, assistant to the superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, the students' absence is also hurting the district's voluntary desegregation efforts and is casting "a bad light" on the schools' reputation.

Ms. Cohen explained that the Army has justified busing the children to private schools because a military regulation allows such transportation if public schools in the area are considered "blighted" or if children must pass through "blighted or industrial neighborhoods or through heavy-traffic areas" in order to attend public schools.

"There is no way in the world that anyone can possibly define the neighborhood or the schools surrounding The Presidio as 'blighted,"' Ms. Cohen said. "The base is right near the marina, and that's one of the city's prime pieces of real estate."

Free Public Transportation

Furthermore, Ms. Cohen added, the school district already provides free bus transportation for the remaining 259 pupils from the base who attend kindergarten through the 5th grade in the city's schools. She also noted that the older students living there have the option of riding free of charge on city school buses to any of the district's magnet schools.

"We're not talking about children having to walk anywhere," she said. "No one has to walk through heavy traffic or high-crime areas."

Ms. Cohen's characterization of the situation, however, differed from that offered by Robert Mahoney, the installation's public-affairs officer.

"First," he said, "in no way, shape, or form is anyone here accusing the city's schools of being 'blighted,"' Mr. Mahoney said. "Our main concern here is seeing that the children get to school safely.

"We have no schools on this base, and when the kids leave the post they're right in the middle of the city," he continued. "And you know that big-city traffic is not the safest thing in the world."

Mr. Mahoney also said that the issue of children attending private schools "is one of parental choice, just as it is for any other parent anywhere else in the country."

"We feel that we have a good working relationship with the school district, and we want to keep it that way," he continued. "But the bottom line here is the safety of the children and parental choice. Put those two together, and there you have the situation."

According to Ms. Cohen, there "is really nothing that the school district can do" to force parents on the base to change their minds about sending their children to private schools.

"We're not looking to pick a fight or to file suit of any sort," she said. "All we want to do is convince the public that our schools are not blighted, that they are safe, and that they offer high-quality instruction."

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