When Rural Schools Partner with Military Recruitment Programs, It’s Above All Pragmatic

Photo by Benjamin Faust on UnsplashFebruary 1, 2024 / Janie Ekere /  The Daily Yonder - Center for Rural Strategies - Activists remain concerned about the costs and ethics of school military recruitment, despite the potential educational and career opportunities it can offer, said Scott Harding and Seth Kershner, co-authors of “Contested Terrain: School Militarism and the Battle for Hearts and Minds.”

But in response to funding challenges, some rural schools have allowed military recruiters to assist with coaching sports or classroom instruction, said Kershner, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of History. 

According to a 2023 article from TIME Magazine, the military has had varying degrees of difficulty recruiting since the abolition of the draft in 1973. The story attributed the most recent recruitment slump to several factors like low unemployment, lack of eligible recruits, and a growing cultural divide between civilians and the military. 

A 2017 report from The RAND Corporation proposed extending military recruitment efforts to more rural schools to reach more eligible young people. The RAND Corporation report primarily focused on the JROTC program, which is the military’s most common method of youth recruitment. 

According to the report, 23% of schools in large cities, and 28% of schools in mid-sized cities, have JROTC programs. By contrast, 7% of schools in “distant rural” areas and 2% of “remote rural” areas have JROTC programs. Rural schools tend to have fewer students and staff to sustain these programs than their urban and suburban counterparts, the report said. 

Despite having higher graduation rates and higher standardized test scores than urban schools, rural schools consistently struggle to obtain adequate funding for programs and teacher salaries, according to a 2021 report from the National Association of State Boards of Education. For example, rural high schools in particular often can’t sustain physics or other STEM classes, considered essential for college preparation, due to a shortage of qualified science teachers.

“Based on our research, it seems that rural schools are much more likely to allow recruiters to do all these extra duties,” Kershner said. “After all, it helps cash-strapped rural districts that may have teacher shortages.”

The RAND Corporation report’s findings suggest that JROTC could also help schools fill in educational gaps. Enrollment in JROTC may contribute to higher graduation rates and test performance, the report said (though it also notes that data for other educational outcomes is more mixed).

JROTC can also offer less tangible benefits that can contribute to better academic outcomes. Students have joined to be part of “something bigger than themselves,” said Rafal Jurkiewicz, Senior Marine Instructor at South Stokes High School in rural Walnut Cove, North Carolina.

“The JROTC program prides itself on the fact that we are a team and our students, along with their parents, can see the benefit of us developing youth’s self-esteem, confidence, public speaking, and leadership skills,” Jurkiewicz said.

Even if students choose not to join the military upon graduation, some do turn to JROTC instructors for guidance on applying to or preparing for college, Harding and Kershner wrote in their book. Upon successful completion of the program, students may earn scholarships that can help them pay for college. 

“We had one student selected and awarded the Marine Corps ROTC scholarship, which resulted in the successful completion of the Citadel Military College and current commission in the Marine Corps,” Jurkiewicz said. “There is also one cadet, who was awarded the Army ROTC scholarship and is currently attending the University of North Carolina Charlotte while pursuing a commission in the Army.”

According to Harding and Kershner, despite the potential benefits, school administrators, antiwar activists, and even veterans themselves have expressed concern about the military’s access to students for decades. 

Under the Hutchinson Amendment, schools that receive Title I federal funding are already legally required to give military recruiters as much access to students as college or job recruiters. Citing studies from 2012 and 2013, Harding and Kershner wrote that school administrators often facilitate military access to students, even beyond what’s legally required. 

“The combination of federal law requiring military access, and school personnel’s eagerness to please, thus led the school to promote military careers over other postsecondary career paths, effectively creating a ‘school-to-military pipeline,’” Harding and Kershner wrote.

Official messaging from JROTC tends to downplay its role in recruitment. In its curriculum, the JROTC emphasizes its role as a leadership and citizenship program rather than a recruitment program. But as many as 40% of JROTC students join the military when they leave high school, Harding and Kershner wrote. 

“JROTC ‘tends to…encourage kids to join the military at higher rates than anywhere else,” said former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, quoted in “Contested Terrain.“ 

The fact that JROTC programs tend to operate in poorer and ethnically diverse areas has fueled criticism from activists (such as the educational advocacy organization Rethinking Schools) that the U.S. military deliberately targets low-income students and students of color, arguing that although JROTC programs may provide better educational outcomes, they can potentially divert resources from non-military programs that could also help underserved students succeed academically. 

Anti-war rhetoric may be less effective in opposing military recruitment in rural communities. Rural communities tend to have a larger share of veterans than suburban or urban parts of the country. Though this is changing as rural veterans age and post-9/11 vets increasingly settle in metropolitan areas, veterans still make up around 10% of the rural adult population. And having a significant population of veterans can help build trust between communities and the military.

“In Stokes County, it is easy to spot local veterans proudly displaying their military service and accomplishments,” Jurkiewicz said. “In addition, every time we have had any interactions with local organizations or local populations, our Cadets’ presence has been well received.”

With that said, rural schools have engaged in their own anti-JROTC protests as well. In the 1990s, the U.S. Navy had planned to build a JROTC unit in a school in Waterboro, a rural town in southern Maine, according to Central Committee on Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) archives. 

Though antiwar groups like CCCO had lent their support to local activists, the town’s school committee voted down the creation of the unit due primarily to concerns about the cost,  Kershner said.

“Peace organizations might offer support and information to local groups, but the local folks have the influence in our absurdly decentralized educational system,” Kershner said. “And unless you’re living in an ultra-liberal area like San Francisco, school issues typically get decided on economic and pragmatic, rather than ideological issues.”

Source: https://dailyyonder.com/when-rural-schools-partner-with-military-recruitment-programs-its-above-all-pragmatic/2024/02/01/


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