Bid to close JROTC makes takeover of SFUSD look wise

San Francisco and Los Angeles are both Democratic strongholds, each is a city and a county, and they are major melting pots for Hispanic and Asian immigrants. Aside from that, there aren’t many comparisons to be made between San Francisco and Los Angeles because L.A. dwarfs S.F. in almost every conceivable way.

But in one sad way, they’re achingly similar. Each has a struggling, dysfunctional school district. And how each city copes with it will be critical over the next decade.

In the boldest move of his short tenure, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who along with Mayor Gavin Newsom is considered one of the bright young stars of the Democratic Party — is trying to take over the city’s school district by convincing state lawmakers to let him establish a council consisting of himself and the leaders of the 26 cities served by the district. The seven-member school board would then assume a strictly advisory role in running the schools and reining in the massive, failing bureaucracy the district has become.

So far, Newsom has resisted such an attempt, instead trying to work within the current structure to right the San Francisco Unified School District. But unless the school board stops its misguided ideological forays — and if he wins re-election — it could beckon a similar action to give the mayor more direct control.

San Francisco’s public schools are suffering from a severe decline in enrollment, an inability to deal with an increasing segregation problem, a steep budget deficit and a growing perception that the district is not well-managed. So how is the school board dealing with its many challenges? By trying to come up with a way to kill the Junior ROTC program because of objections over the military’s “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy.

It would be hard to fully grasp the disconnect between the board’s looming actions and that thing we generally refer to as reality, but I’ll try. A majority of the school board’s members want to take a stand against the military for a national policy they say does not allow openly gay members and doesn’t follow the district’s anti-discrimination program. But rather than influence anyone on the national level, they’ve decided instead to punish the kids in their own school district.

One small ceremonial act for the school board, one giant step backward for the students and families they serve.

I agree with the group of trustees that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a seriously flawed policy that should either be repealed or readdressed. But for those with short memories, the program was the crafty handiwork of the Democrats’ beloved Clinton administration, which was seeking a compromise measure that would satisfy the president’s campaign promise to allow gays to serve in the military. And that policy was ultimately approved by Congress.

So if I wanted to change the law, I would go back to the officials who passed it — and they are in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, not the armed services.

Yet by illogical extension, the school board wants to make a move to outlaw a national program that has existed in San Francisco for more than 100 years. JROTC has more than 1,600 students in seven city public high schools who enroll on a voluntary basis and receive physical education training, disciplinary instruction and perform community service.

Beyond the fact that the program receives about $800,000 from the military, there are few ties to the military — the students don’t even march with rifles anymore. JROTC has evolved into a leadership program where students learn about self-esteem and drug awareness — and military recruiters are barred from any involvement.

“It seems a shame to get tangled up in a federal policy that has nothing to do with these kids,” said Henry Morris, a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army. “The board wants to come up with an alternate program. The only problem is, there is no alternate program.”

Oh, and by the way, the program doesn’t discriminate against gays — numerous members are openly gay and lesbian and it’s about 95 percent nonwhite. That seems to jibe with the board’s bent on political correctness, but it’s hard to stop a bad idea that is based on a faulty premise.

Taking on the military is just the latest political misadventure for the school board, and like the others, it has nothing to do with education.

The inability of the Los Angeles School District to cope with its myriad problems is the reason its mayor is taking a drastic step to try fixing it. There may be a lesson there for San Francisco — even if the myopic views of some school board members prevent them from seeing it.

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