When Arne Duncan stepped down as the head of the Chicago Public Schools to become the secretary of education in January, the school district he left behind had little to brag about. While Duncan served as its chief executive officer, CPS received mostly average or below average rankings in "The Nation's Report Card," a Department of Education assessment of the country's largest urban school districts. Its high school graduation rates lingered at around 50 percent, well short of the national average of 70 percent. And since 2004, CPS has failed as a district to meet No Child Left Behind's "adequate yearly progress" standards. In one area, however, Chicago's schools stood out: In large part to Duncan's efforts, they were—and remain—the most militarized in America.
Nearly 10,500 of Chicago's 203,000 sixth- through twelfth-graders participate in some kind of military program on campus, from joining the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps to enrolling in Pentagon-sponsored JROTC academies. As the district's CEO (and previously as deputy chief of staff to his predecessor, Paul Vallas), Duncan oversaw the controversial move to bring full-fledged military academies to the Windy City. The district's first, the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville, opened in 1999, and three more followed during Duncan's tenure. Today, Chicago has six military high schools run by a branch of the armed services. Six smaller military academies share buildings with existing high schools. Nearly three dozen JROTC programs exist in regular high schools, where students attend a daily JROTC class and wear uniforms to school one day a week. And at the middle school level, there is a JROTC program for sixth, seventh- and eighth-graders.
Chicago may have the nation's biggest JROTC program, but it is no longer an anomaly. Due to increases in federal funding for JROTC programs, the military's presence in public schools is greater than ever before. More than a dozen academies partly funded by the Department of Defense have sprouted up from Philadelphia to Oakland, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009 passed last year will increase the number of JROTC units nationwide from 3,400 to 3,700 by 2020, at a cost of $170 million. (Peacework magazine obtained a list of schools that have requested JROTC programs.) The Marines are in discussions to open new JROTC academies in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, helping to expand a program that critics contend has blurred the line between education and recruitment.
Now that Duncan is the nation's top education official, anti-recruitment activists worry that he will use his position to promote the expansion of JROTC and military academies as solutions for cash-strapped or underperforming school districts. "We see he has been promoting military academies," says Darlene Gramigna, program director for the American Friends Service Committee's Truth in Recruitment Program. "Around the country, that's what going on—Arne Duncan believes in these military academies."
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