JROTC on Life Support in San Francisco

Arch-liberal San Francisco will vote next month on whether to retain Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps classes. JROTC may just win.

In 2006, the school board voted to end the 90-year-old program, which enrolled 1,600 students at seven high schools. Trustee Mark Sanchez argued that JROTC recruits students to join the military, where gays face the "don't ask, don't tell policy." Unable to come up with an alternative leadership program, the board extended the death date to June, 2009. But they drove two-thirds of cadets out of JROTC by voting this summer to deny PE credit and transfer ninth graders to other classes. The abrupt move cost the district $1 million to hire new teachers, while still paying half the salaries of JROTC instructors.

JROTC students, alumni, and parents qualified Proposition V, an advisory measure asking the school board to retain JROTC, and it will be on the ballot for the November election. Mayor Gavin Newsom, worried about the city's anti-military image, has endorsed V, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former mayor. More surprisingly, so has the city's gay American Legion post and several gay/lesbian student groups. Asian voters are expected to favor JROTC, which predominantly attracts Asian students. The teachers' union is neutral.

Choice for Students, the pro-V campaign, says JROTC instructors don't recruit. If they do, they're doing a lousy job: nearly all JROTC participants graduate and go on to college while only three to five percent enter the military. Non-JROTC students, who are less likely to go to college, are more likely to enlist, says Nelson Lum of Choice for Students.

San Francisco cadets "ask" and "tell" all they want. Gay and bisexual cadets told the school board that JROTC is a safe place to come out. Openly gay students regularly hold top leadership posts. JROTC attracts students who want to learn discipline, work as a team, rise to leadership roles, and volunteer for community service projects. They compete on drill teams, play on drum squads, and go on field trips. Those who participate for three or four years -- most do not -- run school activities and classes.

Over and over again, JROTC cadets say it creates a sense of "family," that it gives them a place to be after school, that it gives them a reason to show up every day. JROTC attracts students who want the camaraderie and discipline of sports, but aren't able to make a team, says Johnny Wang, campaign director for Proposition V. Half the cadets -- and most of the leaders -- are female.