Guest Editorial: JROTC and the Left in San Francisco

by Michael Bernick on October 2, 2008

I became involved with JROTC as director of the state employment department, the Employment Development Department, under Governor Gray Davis. JROTC proved to be an outstanding pre-employment and life skills program. My son William participated in JROTC at Washington High.

In this piece, I don’t want to address the reasons to support JROTC (Proposition V) or the San Franciscans who are supporting it. You can find this information on our website. Instead, I want to focus on three issues that have been raised most often by people on the left in San Francisco. We are actively seeking to build on the support we’ve already received from the Democratic left, especially support from the women’s community.

1. JROTC and military recruitment. By the guidelines of the program and the San Francisco Unified School District, JROTC instructors are precluded from recruiting. Only a tiny number of JROTC participants, well less than 5% of participants, ever enter the military.

Each of the individual schools track outcomes for graduating seniors. Tracking over the past ten years at each of the 7 San Francisco public schools that host JROTC programs shows that military participation ranges generally from 2%-3% of JROTC participants. The great majority of JROTC participants, go onto post secondary education.

At Balboa High, for example, the senior class of 230 students included slightly less than 100 who participated in JROTC at some point in their high school careers—from one semester of participation to four years. Among this group, there was not one enlistment in 2008. Over the previous 13 years, during which the current JROTC faculty leader, Gerry Paratore, has been at Balboa, enlistments rarely have been more than two to three students per year.

JROTC does succeed as it incorporates values of structure, discipline, and teamwork–values that are part of the military. JROTC’s mission, though, is development of youth, not military recruitment.

2. JROTC and the LGBT Community: The San Francisco JROTC, under Colonel Robert Powell, prides itself as a model of LGBT inclusion. Openly LGBT cadets are among the citywide cadet leadership. LGBT cadets describe JROTC as a highly supportive environment, and their “home” in high school.

The “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy of the federal government has led some on the left to decline support for Proposition V. The San Francisco JROTC had no influence in structuring this policy, and in its own hiring follows the non-discrimination guidelines of the SFUSD. Further, I will note that The Friends of JROTC, the group formed to support JROTC, unanimously came out against DADT in early 2007, sending a letter to Congress in March 2007 in support of legislation to reverse DADT. We intend to continue to reverse DADT, no matter what happens with Proposition V.

3. JROTC and Choice: Some on the left, such as the Bay Guardian, are trying to trivalize the Prop V campaign, by saying that it involves a tiny number of students. This is not true. Despite the withdrawal of PE credit; despite the pulling of freshmen and sophomores out of JROTC right before the start of the school year, more than 600 students are currently enrolled in JROTC—three times more than expected.

Yet, even if only 10 students enrolled, the core principal of Proposition V would be true: parents and students should be able to choose to participate in a program that has shown success over time.

Many years ago, in the early 1970s, I was a minor (very minor) participant in Democratic Socialist politics in America—president of my college’s Democratic Socialist Club and one of the founding college co-chairs of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). I don’t mention this to boast: by the 1970s, Democratic Socialists had negligible influence on national affairs—often with good reason.

But Harrington taught valuable lessons about political involvement. Chief among these was the importance of respecting democracy and individual choice. Others on the left talked frequently at the time of “false consciousness” , “re-education”, and a “substitute proletariat”, to call for ignoring the choices made by ordinary people. Harrington and Democratic Socialists rejected this anti-democratic approach, usually arguing for more democracy and choice, not less, as a central tenant of the left.

So in this campaign, the JROTC program might not be a good fit for all students, and school board members and other politicians might ideologically oppose it. But as the program has proven results, the preferences of parents and students, not ideology, should be the driving factor. This is especially so since JROTC participants come mainly from the tiny sliver of the working class that still resides in San Francisco.

Over the next month, parents, students and teachers will be campaigning throughout the city for Proposition V. Please take the time to speak with them. They provide the truest voice of the program.

Michael Bernick has been involved in community job training programs in San Francisco for 30 years. He is one of the founders of the San Francisco Renaissance Center in 1982, and has been on the board of more than twenty job training groups, including recently the Positive Resource Center and Ella Hill Hutch Community Center.

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