Known for its anti-war activism, San Francisco is ruffling patriotic feathers by giving the boot to a high school program with ties to the military at a time when the nation is fighting in Iraq.
The issue has split local politicians, voters and advocacy groups, sparking new legislation to bar the San Francisco Unified School District from dumping the program in June, as scheduled.
Controversy rages over the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program, taught by retired members of the armed forces to more than 1,000 students in seven San Francisco high schools.
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, who proposed Assembly Bill 223, said lawmakers cannot let "renegade school board members play games with the lives of our high schoolers."
But Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, also a San Francisco Democrat, said state legislators have no right to "drop an A-bomb" into one school district by demanding a nonrequired course.
"It's an intrusion on the local democratic process," Ammiano said.
Voter passage of an advisory ballot measure last November to retain JROTC has not swayed the San Francisco school board to rescind a previous order, though trustees tentatively plan to take another vote within weeks.
Ma contends that the Legislature has an obligation to act on voters' behalf.
"The state delegates authority, but we should not abdicate responsibility," Ma told lawmakers this week, urging intervention.
Taxpayers could be forced to pick up San Francisco's nearly $1 million tab for JROTC if Ma's bill passes as a state mandate.
AB 223, which passed the Assembly Education Committee this week, requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to take effect immediately.
The American Legion, American Veterans, or AMVETS, the National Guard Association and the Armed Forces Retirees Association of California are among veterans groups rallying behind Ma's bill.
"I feel as though I'm back in the '50s or '60s, fighting for my civil liberties," said Vicky Chung, a student company commander.
Nobody wants to glorify combat, said John Reece, 69, an AMVETS official.
"But war is there, it's a distinct possibility, and we need to teach the leadership qualities that we're trying to instill in these kids," he said.
Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, said there is nothing wrong with being patriotic and learning about the armed forces in a program that teaches discipline and social skills, too.
"It's nice to know that we can have the freedoms we have because of what the military gave us," Miller said. "And some paid the ultimate price."
The San Francisco school board initially voted 4-3 in November 2006 to dump Junior ROTC by the end of the 2007-08 school year. It later extended the program for one year, ending this June.
"The Board of Education finds that the JROTC program is an inappropriate extension of the nation's military into the civilian sphere," reads the 2006 resolution to eliminate it.
JROTC is inconsistent with district policies promoting nonviolence, restricting campus military recruitment, and banning educational partnerships with groups that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, school trustees concluded.
Created by the U.S. Department of Defense, JROTC is overseen by instructors who do not necessarily have the full credentials required of other teachers in academic subjects, the school board found.
"Educating children should remain the job of civilians," Laura Magnani, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, said in a letter opposing efforts to retain JROTC.
Opponents also argue that schools should focus on academics, not military science, and that JROTC is too closely linked to fighting forces that function under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy that discourages gay participation.
"If a gay kid goes into the Army, they cannot assume any leadership position, so that's still discrimination," said Ammiano, who is openly gay.
Ma counters that JROTC itself neither discriminates against homosexuals nor recruits for the military, noting that only 3 percent of its cadets enlist in the armed forces.
The San Francisco school board has taken no position on AB 223 because there are differing feelings among trustees, spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said.
State law permits school districts to offer "courses in military science and tactics," such as JROTC, but it bans compulsory attendance.
The Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard support JROTC nationwide and federal funds subsidize such programs.
The creed of Army JROTC targets citizenship, patriotism and hard work. The program promotes fitness, self-motivation and graduation from high school, its national Web site says.
Besides receiving a historical perspective of the military services, cadets can participate in activities ranging from civic service and academic competitions to marksmanship, drilling, rappelling and color guard presentations, the Web site adds.
Combat skills are not taught, and participants are not committed to the armed forces. "However, JROTC cadets from all services may get advanced rank if they enlist in the service or as a Senior ROTC cadet," the Web site says.
Supporters say the bottom line is success: Most participants are from low-income families, many were at-risk youth, and more than nine of every 10 enroll in college, Ma said.
Darlene Hong told lawmakers that her autistic son Terence has learned about structure and routine and "does not feel like an outcast" in JROTC.
"He comes home every day very enthused about it," Hong said. "He wants to be a part of it. We've been very, very blessed, quite honestly."
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