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A Tougher Mission For JROTC

January 01, 1996 4 min read

Nearly four years into an ambitious five-year plan to expand the presence of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in the nation’s schools, U.S. Department of Defense officials say there will not be enough money to meet the Army’s growth target for 1997. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are fairing better; each branch expects to reach its JROTC goals. But military officials concede that schools’ reluctance to devote scarce local funds to the program--as well as protests in dozens of communities--has made their job more difficult.

JROTC, a companion to the college-level Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, is designed to introduce teenagers to the military. Most of the high school programs are offered as elective courses and focus on citizenship, leadership, and military history. Some units have drill or marksmanship teams. Participation can improve a student’s chances for college scholarships and appointments to the nation’s elite military academies.

About 300,000 students in 2,400 units are currently enrolled in the program, a 60 percent increase since the expansion drive began. About 200,000 students participated in 1,460 units in 1992. The military now hopes to have 2,600 units in schools by the 1996-97 school year. That is 300 units fewer than defense officials initially planned.

Peace activists who oppose military-style programs on philosophical grounds say they have scuttled scores of would-be units. In Columbia, Mo., for example, opponents persuaded the local school board to table a JROTC program last year after they learned that trailers had been ordered for a Navy unit at a local high school. “Apparently, it will not come up again because we’d oppose it,’' says Charles Atkins, a retired businessman and a member of the national board of Veterans for Peace Inc. He advocates replacing military programs with conflict-management classes.

Still, such protests do not always succeed. San Francisco’s 1,500-student JROTC program--already under fire in a city known for its liberal politics--became especially controversial following a 1994 hazing incident. In response to public protests, the district barred guns from JROTC activities beginning this fall, but the school board voted against replacing the program with alternative activities. “You tend to expect

that the military gets what it wants,’' says Chris Lombardi, spokeswoman for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in San Francisco. “That there’s any resistance at all is remarkable.’'

Military officials insist that money, not protest, is the real obstacle to their expansion efforts. Major Robert Shepherd, a spokesman for the Army’s JROTC program, says he had no doubt that if there were adequate federal funding to continue the Army’s expansion, it would meet its initial goal. “Obviously, in my view, the reception has gone very well,’' Shepherd says. “When you travel about, testimonials of staff and students are very positive.’'

Money is a big factor at the local level, as well. Federal funding covers at least 65 percent of unit costs but schools must pick up the rest. Most units are run by two retired soldiers; expenses generally include the instructors’ salaries, uniforms, and books.

“As board treasurer, I couldn’t in good conscience talk about spending good money in a program I had concerns about,’' says Sharon Peters, a member of the Lansing, Mich., school board, which voted 6-3 recently to end its program next fall. The two-year-old Lansing program is currently in three schools and enrolls 50 students. Costs were expected to climb from $45,000 this year to $61,000 next year.

Military officials say they do not keep track of how many schools reject JROTC contracts, but a Navy official estimated that about 20 percent of schools involved in negotiations turn the offers down, usually because of the cost, which averages about $30,000 to $45,000 per school. The military is making efforts to address that problem, particularly in urban schools serving many at-risk students.

Indeed, the Pentagon proposed the JROTC expansion after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “There was a feeling that American youth were generally at risk, and the services had a premier program dealing with youth,’' says Hans Krucke, program manager for Navy JROTC. The JROTC budget has risen from about $90 million in 1992 to $150 million in fiscal ‘95.

When Congress approved the expansion drive in 1993, it authorized “enhanced funding’’ for poor schools. Under this initiative, which currently includes 296 programs, the military covers all JROTC costs for the first three years, and 75 percent in years four and five. Some officials say this has contributed to curtailing the expansion goals. “The more units that get into this category, the less you have for other programs,’' says Major Tom Iskrzak, a program analyst for the Defense Department.

But the extra funding has made JROTC a feasible option for many urban schools, such as New York City’s Tottenville High School, where the Marine Corps program has been a big hit. Students were turned away after enrollment was capped at 178.

“I thought the school needed a program where kids would get involved in leadership and community activities,’' says principal Michael Marotta. “Each day we see kids doing much better in school, including kids we would have lost.’'

--Robert C. Johnston

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as A Tougher Mission For JROTC