Placard at a rally against military involvement in US schools

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American mayors welcome military
schools into poorer neighborhoods

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

3 June, 2008: A little-known occurrence in public education in American cities is the rise of military schools. These schools generally operate as a partnership between the local school district and the US Department of Defense. They target poor, minority students between the ages of 10 and 18, especially African-Americans, and offer academic instruction and athletic activities within a framework of military discipline.

The Oakland Military Institute is one of the first such public schools in the country. It was proposed by former Oakland (CA) Mayor Jerry Brown in 1999. The school opened in 2001 with the help of $2 million from the US Department of Defense and $1.3 million from the California National Guard, a reserve force for the US Army. The Oakland Military Institute has 1200 students, 90 per cent of whom are African-American or Latino.

Urban military schools are attractive to city school districts because of the federal money they bring. They have the support of parents because their focus on discipline and organization is a welcome antidote to the pathologies of the American inner city such as poverty, drugs, and violence. The Department of Defense views the schools as a pipeline for new recruits to the all-volunteer US armed forces.

Historically, the military has been regarded as a viable career choice in the African-American community. The US military offers a stable income, opportunities for education, health care, a chance to travel, the pride and prestige of service, and other options not readily available to inner city youth.

But Black enlistment in the US military is down 60 per cent since 2000 due to the war in Iraq, and public military schools in US cities are coming under increasing scrutiny. 

Roots of involvement
The involvement of the US military in American public schools is not new. On the eve of the United States’ entry into World War I, the US Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916. Under the Act, high schools were authorized the loan of federal military equipment and the assignment of active and retired military personnel as instructors. Students who received military instruction became part of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC).

Over the years, the JROTC program has evolved from overtly military training to citizenship education stressing character building, leadership skills, civic responsibility, and personal health – all within a military structure of discipline and order. The involvement of the military in public education was an option for school districts, not a requirement. That changed seven years ago.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a pillar of the Bush Administration, requires public schools to provide access to military recruiters. Schools must also turn over personal student information to the military for recruitment purposes.

The result has been an unprecedented expansion of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. According to the US Army, JROTC is now in 1645 American public schools, mostly in cities. Current enrollment is 281,000 students, mostly poor and minority, with 4,000 professional instructors in classrooms.

Chicago public schools
Chicago is emblematic of the increasing role of the military in US public schools. Each branch of the US military – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines – operates a public school in Chicago. In addition, there are nine military high schools run by the Chicago School District, as well as over 10,000 students enrolled in JROTC programs.

The military schools and programs focus almost entirely on low-income African-American and Latino youth. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has been a strong advocate of military schools. “This is about education and giving our young people bigger opportunities,” says Daley. 

Other US mayors apparently agree. In recent years, public military academies have opened in cities throughout the country including Richmond (Virginia), Sarasota (Florida), Philadelphia, Atlanta, and New York City.

In some public schools, JROTC programs replace physical education classes and military personnel help coach athletic teams. Last year, the Department of Defense spent $2.6 billion on all recruitment activities, including public schools.

Supporters and critics
Chicago Mayor Daley, who has made military schools a hallmark of his administration, insists that "This is not a recruitment effort.” Students in Chicago seem to agree. They feel no pressure to enlist, according to a report by the Public Broadcasting System. US Army data state that only about 5 per cent of JROTC graduates nationwide enlist in the military.

Test scores and graduation rates appear to be rising at military schools, though both are below statewide averages in most cases. The level of violence is much less in military schools than in standard inner-city public schools. And, perhaps most revealing of their appeal, these schools receive far more applications for admission than there are openings available for new students. 

Critics point to the military schools’ focus on vulnerable youth. Military schools are located almost exclusively in poor, minority neighborhoods, while schools that offer promising educational options such as university prep curricula and International Baccalaureate programs are typically offered in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.

Critics also note that successful participation in a democratic lifestyle requires curiosity, skepticism, diversity of opinion, and the courage to take an unpopular stand – in other words, the opposite of the obedience and mass conformity taught at military schools.

Irony for mayors and communities
Ironically, as the number of public military schools has expanded over the past decade, the number of African-American enlistees in the military has declined dramatically. Since the beginning of the Iraq War, the number of Black youth joining the US military has fallen 58 per cent, according to the Department of Defense.

The decline among African-American youth far exceeds the 10 per cent drop in enlistments by white youth and the 7 per cent drop by Latinos. According to a 2007 poll by CBS News, 83 per cent of African-Americans consider the Iraq war to be a mistake.

A further and painful irony is that the drop in African-American enlistments comes at a time of rising high school dropout rates and rising unemployment among Black youth. The high school dropout rate for Blacks exceeds 50 per cent in many US urban public school systems. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 72 per cent of all Black male high school dropouts are unemployed as are 50 per cent of all Black males in their 20s, graduates and non-graduates.

If the military is no longer considered a viable career path, it will be difficult for many of these youth to make a positive contribution to their communities.

Mayors who support the militarization of public schools must now deal with a growing anti-military sentiment among the population they most want to help.

World Mayor 2023