Fiona Ma Comes to JROTC’s Rescue

by Marc Norton on February 10, 2009

State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma’s proposed “emergency legislation … to save JROTC” would make San Francisco the only city in the state, probably in the country, required by law to have JROTC classes. It’s an attempt to get state legislators from San Diego to Sacramento to dictate to San Francisco that we must keep the Pentagon’s favorite military recruitment program in our schools. It is an attack on local control of schools that has even pro-JROTC members of the San Francisco school board wondering aloud what she is doing.

The language in Ma’s bill states that San Francisco public schools must “make Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) courses available to pupils under its jurisdiction in grades 9 to 12, inclusive.” Whatever its author’s stated intentions, this language unambiguously requires JROTC classes in ALL San Francisco high schools (“available to pupils under its jurisdiction in grades 9 to 12, inclusive…”), not just the seven high schools which currently have JROTC programs. Wallenberg, SOTA, O’Connell, Marshall, June Jordan, Gateway … get ready for JROTC.

Ma’s bill also requires all school districts in California which have JROTC programs to exempt cadets from “attending courses of physical education.” This flies in the face of current state law, which in recent years has seen bipartisan efforts to tighten up physical education (PE) requirements. But Ma wants to give the military a pass. JROTC is hardly boot camp. The idea that marching around in formation a couple of times a week, or being forced to do push ups as punishment by your commander, is the same as a genuine physical education class is only one of the many myths propagated by JROTC spin doctors. JROTC instructors, all retired military officers, have only a funky “designated subjects special subjects teaching credential” that requires little more than a high school diploma, much less a real physical education teaching credential.

Still, the abolition of physical education for JROTC cadets is meant to be the chief hook for some state legislators. School districts in certain cities, particularly San Diego and Long Beach, are currently chafing under the requirement that cadets in their high school military programs must take PE classes. They look worrisomely at San Francisco, where the removal of PE credit for JROTC cadets this year, in accordance with current state law, has cut enrollment in the program by over two-thirds, as all those 14 and 15 year old freshmen discover that JROTC no longer gets them out of PE.

Still, the prospects of passage for Ma’s legislation are considerably dimmed because, coming so late in the game, it is of necessity an “urgency” bill — meaning that it will require a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to get it onto the Terminator’s desk. This is the same two-thirds requirement that has blocked any state budget for so long that you are likely to get your state income tax refund paid in Arnold Bucks.

In addition, Ma’s bill, if passed into law, “would require school districts to provide a higher level of service and to perform additional administrative tasks” and thus “would create a state-mandated local program.” In other words, the state would be required to reimburse local school districts for any new costs. The San Francisco school district could thus demand that the state give them the one million dollars per year that district taxpayers have to shell out to support JROTC. That might be tempting to some San Francisco officials, but what is to prevent other school districts around the state from threatening to dump their JROTC programs unless the state reimburses their costs as well? Do state legislators really want to take on this added fiscal burden in a period of unprecedented fiscal crisis?

Ma brought her road show to San Francisco last Thursday with a press conference at which she promised to be “joined by elected officials, community leaders, and JROTC cadets.” She delivered a grand total of two elected officials. The only recognizable “community leader” was Quincy Yu, who as treasurer of the Yes on V campaign paid herself several thousand dollars to run the “volunteer” petition-gathering campaign. Ma’s supporters did deliver 100-150 young JROTC cadets to pose for the cameras.

The only elected San Francisco official at Ma’s press conference was Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, from the Sunset and West of Twin Peaks. Elsbernd thanked the “adult leadership” of the pro-JROTC campaign, nodding towards the assemblage of Quincy Yu, campaign consultant Johnny Wang, deposed BART Board member Michael Bernick, and a knot of discretely out-of-uniform JROTC instructors. He thanked the JROTC cadets. He forgot, however, to thank the downtown moneybags from the Committee on Jobs, the Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Realtors, PG&E and such who funded the pro-JROTC Prop V campaign last year to the tune of $200,000 plus.

Elsbernd made the obligatory reference to “democracy,” parroting the line that the Prop V victory that downtown bought last November should have compelled the school board to reinstate JROTC. Those retailing this line seem to forget that the school board members were elected also. Elsbernd should be careful with his odes to “democracy,” as he is currently leading the opposition to preventing San Franciscans from getting the right to vote on possible new tax revenues, despite the unprecedented budget crisis in our fair city. Elsbernd is fighting that exercise in “democracy” hand-in-glove with the same downtown crowd that funded Prop V. As they say, money doesn’t talk, it swears.

The only other elected official at Ma’s rally was Ted Lieu, an Assemblyman from Torrance. Makes sense. Why shouldn’t legislators from Southern California tell the San Francisco School Board what classes they should offer? That’s “democracy,” right? Lieu was described as the chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus. He is also a Major in the Air Force Reserves.

The other Assemblyperson from San Francisco, the incomparable Tom Ammiano, sits on the Assembly’s Education Committee, where by all rights Ma’s bill should go first. Ammiano, as an elected member of the school board, was fighting to get JROTC out of our schools long before Ma’s ascension to public office. He is unlikely to take kindly to his fellow Assemblyperson’s bill, which will certainly undercut any claim by Ma that San Francisco really wants the state to weigh in on this matter.

The state legislature’s website currently states that Ma’s bill “may be heard in committee March 7.” We live in interesting times.


Copyright © 2009 by Marc Norton

Marc Norton is a bellman at a small hotel in downtown San Francisco. He has two sons who attended Alvarado Elementary, James Lick Middle and Lowell High schools. Contact him at nortonsf@ix.netcom.com, or through his website at www.MarcNorton.us.

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