Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Students want a choice

All they are asking for is a choice.

I have met hundreds of students who have benefited greatly from the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program in San Francisco. This program has been a great resource for kids seeking self-assurance and leadership development and provides a safe environment for before and after school activities. I have met cadets from all parts of San Francisco life: Chinese and white, gay, lesbian, and transgender, those on free or reduced lunch, and those from middle-class families.

JROTC has been in the San Francisco Unified School District for over 90 years and has made a difference in the lives of many, bringing students together with a shared purpose and teaching the discipline necessary for future success not just as students, but also as future parents and community leaders.

I feel that the members of the San Francisco school board believe that JROTC is a successful and beneficial program. Unfortunately too often in San Francisco an issue becomes politicized, not on its merits, but on how it might play in the press or fit in an ideological structure.

During a time of economic collapse and the reality of significant budget cuts throughout our educational system, is this really the right time to cut a leadership program with immense popularity amongst its students? Now is a time to strengthen programs that work, to provide additional opportunities for our kids to build self-esteem and gain the type of skills that will prepare them for college and the workforce. When so many programs are being cut, now is not the time to voluntarily deplete student choices.

At first, I had similar concerns as the school board members. I, too, disagree with the war in Iraq. I, too, am against allowing military recruitment in our schools. I am 100 percent opposed to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and would be deeply against any program that was not inclusive or that discriminated based on sexual orientation.

But after talking to the cadets and the instructors for the program, all of my fears were alleviated.

The program is inclusive and supportive of all students, including openly gay, bisexual, and transgender student participants and cadet staff. The program does not allow for military recruitment in our schools. What I have seen is the great camaraderie amongst the students, teachers, parents, and administrators. What I have seen is the great diversity of the cadets, 90 percent of whom come from minority communities and 88 percent of whom are women. What I have seen is that over 90 percent of JROTC participants go on to pursue higher education, while less than 3 percent join the armed forces. Those are hard numbers that, as a CPA, I cannot ignore. Allowing JROTC as an option for students to achieve physical education credit just makes sense.

Like many of you, I feel like we have been discussing JROTC for years. The issue has been in front of the school board, yet often in San Francisco the voters are asked to make a final decision on various issues of significance to our community. When the voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition V last November, I had the utmost confidence that the school board would follow suit in reinstating this clearly popular program as an option in our schools. If the program is not restored by June, we cannot be certain that the funding will ever return.

The board's silence is deafening. 

Since the board voted to eliminate the program in 2006, I have met with and heard from hundreds of students who have personally benefited from the program. With a lack of action from the school board and the June programmatic deadline quickly approaching I felt the need to act. Two weeks ago I proposed Assembly Bill 223, which would require the San Francisco school board to provide JROTC as an option that meets the physical education graduation requirement.

Some will criticize my legislation as circumventing local control, yet I disagree. As elected officials, it can be easy to forget that we work for the voters. My bosses are the people of the 12th Assembly District, many of whom are parents and homeowners that strongly support this program. In November, I believe the people of San Francisco spoke loudly, and it is my responsibility as a public servant to protect the program that they so clearly supported.

We are all dealing with shrinking budgets – at the state, at City Hall, and in our personal lives. Over the next two years, we will likely see programs and social services cut or even ended. Yet the money for JROTC is partially covered by federal funds, and has a 90-year history with a proven track record of success. Sometimes, a program is not about Republican versus Democrat or "moderate" versus "progressive," but about the hundreds of children it helps day in and day out. JROTC is that program – the children and voters have spoken, and as elected officials it is our job to listen.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D) represents most of the western part of San Francisco and the northern edge of San Mateo County.