Proposition V and JROTC: Lessons in How Not to Listen

By Tim Kingston

The Truthiness Report: No. 11 in a series on election advertising.

Sidebar: “Moderate vs. Progressive?”

For a measure that is completely nonbinding there is much sturm und drang around the “Policy Against Terminating Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) in Public High Schools.”

Debate is a limited commodity in the case of Proposition V; instead the two sides talk past and through each other — loudly and heatedly. They also make claims that cannot be verified.

The simple fact about Proposition V is that all it does is urge the San Francisco Board of Education not to eliminate JROTC — and the school board is free to ignore the measure if it passes.

Despite all the fuss, the city controller said Proposition V will have no fiscal consequences for the city.

Ideological Battle

But the spat over JROTC is really more about a case of two alternate worldviews that just happen to occupy the same space-time continuum.

On the one hand there is the moderate/conservative “leave politics out of school yard” crowd that wants students to make their own decision about JROTC.

They say this dispute is all about saving a successful local program teaching leadership skills to youth.

On the other is the view that “politics” can’t be left outside the school gates, particularly when it involves anything that smacks of both discrimination and militarism.

Opponents see JROTC a central part of Department of Defense efforts to recruit and maintain a steady supply of “cannon fodder” for foreign wars, as well as supporting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in gay- and lesbian-friendly San Francisco.

Unverified Assertions

At the heart of the Proposition V argument is the contention that JRTOC is a successful local civics program that students should have the choice to join if they wish.

Proponents assert that the program is overwhelmingly supported by parents, teachers, administrators and students.

“It is a good program,” said Michael Bernick of Choice for Students. “There is no reason it should be eliminated due to local politics.”

In the San Francisco voter handbook, supporters say that JROTC “teaches students discipline, leadership skills and the importance of civic responsibility” to 1,600 cadets in San Francisco schools.

They stress that 90 percent of the cadets “are from minority groups,” that 88 percent of the student leaders were female in the last two years, and that there are openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cadets and cadet leaders.

Supporters also say a significant portion of JROTC cadets wind up in college — more than non-cadets, in fact.

They also note that only 3 percent of San Francisco cadets join the military — considerably fewer than nationwide statistics, which vary from 45 percent according to the ACLU, to 30-40 percent according to Bernick.

However, not all of the assertions can be verified.

Gentle Blythe, the school district’s communications director, said no statistics are available to back the assertion that more JROTC students get into college than other students.

Actual JROTC enrollment is significantly down from the 1,600 cited in the voters’ guide. There are now between 500 to 1,050 cadets according to Bernick and a July 2007 San Francisco school district handout (search for “jrotc”), respectively.

Blythe said the percentage of youth of color in JROTC is roughly comparable with school district demographics as a whole, which means JROTC neither targets, nor underserves, communities of color.

The fact that the proportion of female students in JROTC is roughly double compared to the general student population could indicate the program offers advantages for female students.

Military Recruitment Tool

Choice is not the issue for opponents of Proposition V, nor is the popularity of the program with students, teachers, parents and administrators.

“JROTC is one of the Pentagon’s primary military recruitment tool,” asserts the No on V Web site. “The San Francisco School Board decided to phase out JROTC because San Franciscans do not want military recruiters in our schools, and do not support a program that discriminates against the LGBT community with its ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policies.”

Barry Hermanson, a Green Party congressional candidate for San Francisco’s 12th district, goes even further, by linking the program with the Bush administration.

“International law said that militaries around the world should not recruit children under 17 years of age,” he said. “Former defense secretary [William] Cohen said JROTC is one of the best recruitment devices we could have. Proponents say, ‘We are not recruiting,’ but I maintain by bringing retired military staff into our schools … you are recruiting students.”

The problem is that this is accurate only in the most general sense — that JROTC raises the profile of the military on local public-school campuses.

It could be argued that JROTC students are more predisposed to recruitment, but if that were the case, more than 3 percent of San Francisco’s JROTC cadets would be joining the military.

Proposition V advocates vociferously deny that JROTC allows the recruiting of cadets.

They say, backed by the Blythe of the SFUSD, that it is the federal No Child Left Behind law that governs military recruitment access to students.

“JROTC has nothing to do with this process,” said Bernick. “If recruiters want to visit schools they must access the school through the main office, not JROTC.”

The other primary argument used against proposition V is that JROTC is partly funded by the Defense Department, which administers the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Opponents say this results in secondhand discrimination against lesbian and gay people, because it is unlikely that they will be hired as JROTC instructors.

‘Don’t Ask’ Conflicts

Proponents of Proposition V said they too oppose the “Don’t Ask” policy, and have lobbied against it, but that it does not apply locally.

They also assert that San Francisco’s JROTC could be a model for the rest of the nation, and note that one of the ballot arguments favoring proposition V was written by Michael Thomas, a gay African American JROTC graduate.

Yet Gentle Blythe of the local school district notes that instructors for the program have to be veterans certified by the JROTC, which means they must have an honorable discharge — something much harder for openly gay and lesbian individuals to get.

Alan Lessick of the pacifist American Friends Service Committee said Thomas “can participate in the program, but it is unequal, because other people earn benefits that he does not.”

Even if openly gay and lesbian youth in the local program are not discriminated against, he said, this will change when and if they go on to join the military, because they will be ineligible for ROTC college scholarships and other educational benefits available to heterosexual cadets.

About the only thing these opposing parties all agree on is that a very small percent JROTC students from the San Francisco Unified School District wind up joining the military — unlike the rest of the country where at least a third of JROTC students end up in boot camp.

Whichever way the vote goes on Nov. 4, one this is clear, this issue will not be resolved by Nov. 5 and both sides will remain at loggerheads.

Tim Kingston is a veteran investigative and general assignment reporter in the Bay Area. His stories and opinion articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Bay Guardian, East Bay Express, San Jose Mercury New, AlterNet and The Nation, among other outlets.

The San Francisco 2008 Election Truthiness Report is co-produced by and The Public Press, and funded through small donations using the Spot.Us “crowdfunding” Web site.

SIDBEAR: Progressive vs. Moderate?

Proposition V has heavy-duty fiscal and political backers, some of whom don’t generally wind up on the same side of most political debates.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Mayor Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the SF Police Officers Association and the San Francisco Republican Party all back Proposition V.

As of Oct. 6, when data from a Sept. 30 filing deadline became available, JROTC backers had poured $87,647 into Choice for Students, the group backing Proposition V.

$41,000 of that came from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (search under “Choice for Students”), which has steadfastly declined to return any calls from the Truthiness Project.

Meanwhile, in the same period, the “No Military Recruitment in Our Schools — No on V” committee made do with $7,535, the support of Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, a coalition of anti-war groups and San Francisco’s traditional disdain for all things military.

Given the lopsided nature of the fundraising, Proposition V opponents assert there is more going on than meets the eye.

“When the Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce and the realtors get involved early on, there is often an agenda,” said Alan Lessick, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee.

He says the early stages of getting proposition V on the ballot were stage managed by the San Francisco Republican Party and political consultant Johnny Wang, who has worked closely with Mayor Gavin Newsom in previous campaigns.

“The political agenda is splitting the city along progressive vs. moderate lines,” said Lessick.

“Backlash Against the Left Wing”

“The Republican Party didn’t endorse the measure until September,” counters Chris Bowman of the San Francisco Republican Party. “The Chamber came in pretty late, so did the realtors. They were taking a wait-and-see position.”

Bowman said the campaign was “initially almost 100 percent grassroots,” that paid campaigning did not happen until later, and that the leaders of the effort, Students for Choice co-chairs Michael Bernick and Quincy Yu, are not Republicans.

Lessick also said he believes proposition V is part of an effort to target progressive supervisorial candidates Eric Mar and Mark Sanchez, both school board members and JROTC opponents.

Those charges are also rejected by Choice for Student’s Bernick.

“That makes no sense. We did not bring this up,” said Bernick of Choice for Students. “This is a small group who wanted to end JROTC. It only got on the ballot when every other measure was exhausted. We spent two years trying to get the school board to change its mind.”

He added that Sanchez and Mar are “eliminating the program with no replacement.”

The Republican Party’s Bowman says it’s likely that there are forces in City Hall and the mayor’s office that are not unhappy about Proposition V being on the ballot, but he feels the issue is more about the school board.

“I think there will be backlash against the left-wing ideology on the school board and elsewhere in the city,” he said.

–Tim Kingston

2 thoughts on “Proposition V and JROTC: Lessons in How Not to Listen

  1. Kingston says that the “opposing parties all agree… that a very small percent [of] JROTC students from San Francisco… wind up joining the military…”


    Yes on V threw out various recruitment statistics (2%, 3%, 5%) depending upon what day of the week it was, all unverifiable and unbelievable. The No on V campaign repeatedly challenged them to justify these claims. They never did, and never will, because they can’t.

    This is from a letter I sent to the Chronicle, which they of course never printed:

    “When I asked Jill Wynns, the school board’s biggest apologist for the Pentagon, where she got similar ridiculously-low recruitment numbers, she told me they came from the school district. When I asked her for the evidence, she clammed up.

    “The San Francisco Business Times used similar numbers in an article not long ago. When I challenged them, they told me, like Wynns, that their numbers came from a school district report, but that they were ‘unable to turn up a copy.’

    “I filed a public records request with the school district asking for any information they have about the JROTC recruitment rates. Their unequivocal answer is that they have no such data.

    “Only the Pentagon knows how many JROTC cadets end up in the military, either immediately after graduation, or a few years down the road. If you believe the Pentagon when they tell you only 5% of San Francisco JROTC cadets end up in the military, I have a bridge to sell you.”

    Kingston also didn’t dig very deep while researching the funding for Yes on V. The day before his article was posted, Beyond Chron reported that the Yes on V campaign had collected $200,000, and that $110,000 of that alone came from the Committee on Jobs (the lobbying arm of downtown big business). In fact, 90% of the campaign’s money came from just six big downtown donors. Hardly a “grassroots” effort.

    JROTC aims to entrench militarism in our schools, and aims to set up 14, 15 and 16 year old youths for recruitment. The Pentagon doesn’t belong in our schools.

    Kingston’s snide tone and poor research for this article does a disservice to this important issue.

  2. the people who want to do away with the program should sit in on the program itself for about 30 days and see what they do there and talk to the students to get their opinion about the military. to much politics are getting in the way of our educational system. since the military is part of the federal government and the federal government tells and approves what the military does, should san francisco then not take any federal money?