Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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Bill to keep JROTC in S.F. clears committee

A proposal to force the San Francisco Unified School District to keep the Junior Reserves Officers' Training Corps program cleared its first hurdle Wednesday as it passed through an Assembly committee.

The legislation, authored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, would specifically require San Francisco public schools to offer JROTC to students in grades nine through 12 and would overturn the decision of the school board to eliminate the program.

"We acknowledge that, in the general course of events, state government should not dictate programs to local districts, but we have plenty of case law that tells us the state is legally responsible for our schools and that the locally elected school board members are caretakers," Ma told the Assembly Education Committee.

She placed significant emphasis on the passage of Proposition V in November, a resolution urging the school board to retain JROTC that passed with 55 percent of the vote.

Ma said the school board members who will not reconsider are "refusing to uphold the will of the voters."

"Three renegade school board members are playing games with the lives of our students," she said at the hearing, where scores of students from San Francisco high schools testified in support of the measure.

The San Francisco Board of Education voted in 2006 to phase out the JROTC program because of opposition to military recruitment and the military's "Don't ask don't tell" policy for gays and lesbians. The phase-out is scheduled to be complete in June.

The proposal faces an uphill climb, though, because it will require the state to reimburse the school district for the costs of the program. Approval of any measures that cost money will be difficult as California faces ongoing budget deficits, and the bill still must pass through the Appropriations Committee.

The school district currently pays just under $1 million a year for the program, while the U.S. Department of Defense pays the remaining cost of about $600,000.

The bill also is an "urgency" bill, which means it would take effect immediately if approved and requires two-thirds support in both the Assembly and the Senate.

Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the other San Francisco lawmaker in that chamber, sits on the education committee and strongly opposes the measure. At the hearing, he called the bill "irresponsible" and said it amounted to the state trying to "bully a local school board."

"This bill is divisive; it does not show consensus and it does not show respect for the democratic process," Ammiano said. He noted that nearly 60 percent of city voters passed a proposition in 2005 calling for military recruiters to be barred from schools and said duly elected school board members should decide the issue.

Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, a former school board member, also opposed the measure.

If the bill makes it to the senate, it is likely to face split support from San Francisco lawmakers. Senator Mark Leno opposed Prop. V last November, while Senator Leland Yee supported it.

Seven San Francisco high schools have JROTC programs, though enrollment in the program has dropped from 1,600 students in 2006-2007 to about 500 this year, according to the school district. The school board eliminated the physical education credit for JROTC last year. The program has been in San Francisco schools since 1916.

The school district opposes the bill, but does not take a position on JROTC.

"Regardless of how you feel about JROTC, state law shouldn't proscribe whether an individual district offers an elective program," said Gentle Blythe, spokeswoman for the district.

Vicky Chung, a senior at Lowell High School and a JROTC member, told the committee that the program has motivated her to be more involved at school and in the community.

"We really feel like victims and we really need your help," said Chung, fighting back tears. "Our school board is not listening to us."

For further coverage, please watch the following report from KTVU News: