Recently, St. Paul residents have expressed conflicting views over whether to establish a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program at Highland Park High School. If proponents get their way, a military training program funded by the Pentagon would be present in six of the city’s high schools. Critics have voiced concern over the cost of the JROTC to Highland Park — roughly $100,000 per year — which would come at a time when high school arts and music programs are being sharply curtailed. They also have questioned the qualifications of those who would teach JROTC courses — a legitimate worry, given that last year community members in Chicago learned, after filing a public-records request, that more than one-third of the 146 JROTC instructors in that city’s schools lacked a four-year college degree.
Before the proposed JROTC initiative proceeds further, it is worth considering an aspect of the program that has received far less attention than it deserves: JROTC’s value as a military recruiting tool.
The direct connection between JROTC and military recruitment is a matter of historical record. In 1965, shortly after Congress approved a plan to greatly expand the JROTC, Pentagon officials stated that the high school program would reduce the need for a military draft. During the 1970s, as the military recruiting services adjusted to the realities of an all-volunteer force, the Air Force grew its JROTC enrollment by more than 50 percent.
By 2000, General Michael E. Ryan, then chief of staff of the Air Force, told a congressional committee that “almost 50 percent of the folks that go … out of the Air Force Junior ROTC go into one of the services by enlisting or going to ROTC or going to one of the academies.”
To acknowledge the recruiting aspect of JROTC is not to ignore that the program may also be beneficial to some young people. As the Star Tribune’s Nov. 4 editorial correctly noted (“How JROTC lessons can pay off for kids”), some academic studies suggest that participation in JROTC helps prevent dropouts and improves self-esteem. But the reality, as two University of Maine researchers note, is that “very minimal research has been conducted” on the JROTC — which seems odd considering that the federal program celebrated its centenary in 2016.
In the course of researching a book, we found that most studies demonstrate few significant differences in academic grades or graduation rates between JROTC and non-JROTC students. However, research does consistently find support for Ryan’s claim: JROTC participation leads to much higher rates of military enlistment. In a 2012 article in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School noted that the JROTC sends 40 percent of “concentrators” (students who take the course for three or more years) into the military.
When the aerospace science instructor at Johnson High said, “I want to be clear: We are not a military recruitment program,” she wasn’t lying exactly (“Military program under fire,” Oct. 29). After all, on its website the Air Force is careful to frame the JROTC as a way to “train high school cadets in citizenship and life skills.” However, it is deceptive to describe as citizenship education a course of instruction that essentially acts as a turnstile for the military. And it is misleading to play down the military recruiting aspect of this program in public while it has been touted as such before Congress by the former Air Force chief of staff.
There is a tendency to describe any proposed involvement of the military in public schools as a natural occurrence. It is not. While it may be hard to believe today — at a time when even fourth- and fifth-graders in Twin Cities schools are being taught to embrace military careers through the Pentagon’s STARBASE program — military training for children in ninth through 12th grades is fairly new to St. Paul, having arrived only in the 1990s.
The current climate of support for school militarization is a result of people, policies and votes. Which is something St. Paul parents and school board members should keep in mind when the Highland Park issue comes to a vote.
Scott Harding and Seth Kershner are researchers and authors of “Counter-recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools.”