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Plan To Expand Junior ROTC Program Provokes Debate

By Susan G. Foster — November 03, 1982 6 min read

After a year of planning and public debate, Vermont’s Burlington High School this fall became one of the more than 1,200 high schools offering a junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. But not everyone in the community is convinced that a “military presence” at the school is appropriate, despite some claims that the program is a success.

Barbara Hockert, a member of the Burlington school board, is vehemently opposed to the Naval rotc program, which began in September. Last year, she was unable to persuade a majority of the 13-member board to support her position; only one other board member, in fact, shared her view.

“I don’t believe that the military has a place in public education,’' Ms. Hockert said, adding that the kind of decision making taught in the program is not what “we need or want.”

Vocal Critics

As the Defense Department proceeds with plans to expand the junior rotc programs into schools throughout the country, critics such as Ms. Hockert have become more vocal.

“There has been organized opposition [to junior rotc programs] all over the country,” according to Fran Donelan of the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization that monitors military efforts in the schools.

“But nine times out of ten, [opponents] lose, mostly because high-school students don’t organize.”

Moreover, attempts to keep junior rotc programs out of the schools fail “because of the powerful influence of the military in the community,” Ms. Donelan added.

The current economic climate has been used both to promote junior rotc programs in the schools and to argue against them, according to Ms. Donelan.

School officials are attracted by the substantial financial support assumed by the military, Ms. Donelan said, and by the discipline training offered to students in the program. But opponents argue that local funds should not be used for rotc at a time when many other school programs are being cut back.

Since 1973, the number of high-school students enrolled in junior programs nationwide has increased slightly, despite the community protests, according to a Defense Department spokesman. And there are always more schools applying for rotc funds than can be accommodated under the Pentagon’s budget.

But next year, the official said, the department’s budget for the activity will be increased so that by 1985 junior rotc programs can be offered in 1,600 schools.

“I don’t think we would be adding more units if the climate were not favorable,” said Wesley R. Williams, spokesman for the U.S. Army’s rotc program, which is headquartered at Fort Monroe in Virginia.

During the 1980-81 school year, 1,234 high schools entered into agreements with one of three branches of the armed services, for a combined enrollment of 178,732 students, according to the department’s records. During 1979-80, about 1,200 high schools nationwide signed up, with an enrollment of about 165,778 students.

The Army, which runs the largest junior rotc program, has vacancies for two more program units this year and an active wait-ing list of 45 high schools from which to choose. Over the next three years, the Army will seek increased funding for the program so that it can add 190 schools to the 711 now conducting junior rotc programs, according to a spokesman.

Under the junior rotc program, the military assumes the cost of cadets’ uniforms, textbooks, transportation costs, and half of an instructor’s salary. Schools are responsible for paying the other half of the instructor’s salary, which is based on military pay rates.

Ms. Donelan said junior-rotc instructors are not subject either to state certification or to regulations and layoff procedures that affect other teachers. “It’s a very strange situation, because they can’t join the union and they can’t teach any other courses,” she added.

Delegates Demanded Standards

During a recent convention of the Maryland State Teachers Association, according to Ms. Donelan, delegates introduced a resolution “demanding” certification standards for junior rotc instructors. But the union, she said, never voted on the resolution because of “a very strong pro-military faction” within the assembled group.

In New York City, a children’s advocacy group mobilized more than 140 civic and re-ligious leaders to oppose the school board’s plans to expand the junior rotc program, which had existed since 1978 in one city high school, to two additional schools. They opposed not only the board’s expansion plans, but a second proposal that would have given the chancellor the authority to establish junior rotc units in an unlimited number of the city’s schools.

New York City’s school board in September approved the expansion plans and an $86,000 budget to support the three junior rotc units, despite the opposition. The proposal that would have paved the way for an unlimited number of schools to offer the program, however, was withdrawn.

Arguing against both proposals, Miriam Thompson, director of the Advocates for Children of New York, said the rotc program is unsuitable for students because of the philosophical differences between schools and the military. “If parents want their kids to have military training,” she said, “they have the option of sending them to a military academy.”

And despite all the criticism leveled against public education, Ms. Hockert of the Burlington school board said, “I don’t think what follows is that the military can teach [critical-thinking skills or discipline] better. They haven’t taught self-discipline to people much older,” she added.

“Do we really want kids who jump when the military says to jump?” Ms. Hockert asked.

On the other hand, Mr. Williams of the Army’s rotc headquarters contended that the program “can’t be all bad.”

“It depends on the dedication of the instructors, and some of them are frightfully good,” he added.

‘Some of the Best in the World’

Agreeing with that assessment, John L. Crew, Baltimore’s superintendent of public instruction, said that “military instructors are some of the best in the world.”

“I’m not sure the critics have watched those who’ve gone into the military and come out and snapped up all the jobs,” added Mr. Crew, who is a retired Army officer.

Although the Baltimore school board has authorized five junior rotc units for the city’s 15 high schools, Mr. Crew said only three are actually offering the program. He supports the junior rotc program as one of “a broad spectrum of programs” that offer training and leadership experience.

“I’ve seen some of [the rotc cadets] perform at ceremonies who wouldn’t have held their heads that high,” if it weren’t for the program, Mr. Crew said.

Jimmy R. Slaughter, a retired Naval officer who runs the Burlington school’s rotc program, said some of the opposition may be the result of the community’s isolation from the military. “They’re anti-military, and I can’t fault them for that,” he said. “They think that since I’m in a uniform that I would think a certain way.”

When teaching a course, Mr. Slaughter said, he makes every effort to show the program’s cadets how the information applies to “civilian life rather than the military.”

More than 50 students have signed up for the Burlington rotc program, which began this school year. In the first year that the program was offered at another Vermont school, about 23 students enrolled; it has since grown to include more than 100 students.

At the Burlington school, the program includes courses in meteorology, oceanography, hygiene, and health; in the health course, students are currently discussing drug and alcohol abuse, according to Mr. Slaughter.

One day each week, he said, the students are required to wear their uniforms, which are supplied by the Navy. There are also military drill sessions, but Mr. Slaughter insists that “we aren’t teaching militarism.”

In the beginning, according to Mr. Slaughter, many of the students had difficulty with public speaking, but they have since improved, he noted.

“It’s a hands-on course in leadership and citizenship,” he asserted. “If we didn’t do anything but turn out one voting citizen, we’ve done a good job.”

Mr. Slaughter said the immediate success of the program should be measured by the progress of the students. “It’s for the students and if they enjoy it, it’s a success. If they don’t, then they vote with their feet,” he added.

A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 1982 edition of Education Week as Plan To Expand Junior ROTC Program Provokes Debate


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