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Leaving No Soldier Behind: The Militarization of Education

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Message A.J. Di Lorenzo
Since the September 11th attacks, the agenda of the Bush administration has become increasingly focused on foreign policy and domestic security, at the expense of pressing domestic issues. While large portions of the federal budget are allocated for funding the war in Iraq and a host of mismanaged homeland security operations, large tax cuts for the wealthy further strip the government's ability to fund domestic programs. President Bush isolated education as his top domestic issue, but has failed to fund his ill conceived No Child Left Behind legislation. In fact, the act is more intricately linked with the larger Bush foreign policy agenda than it may initially appear and offers little hope to poor students beyond a chance to serve their country in the perpetual "war on terror."

Despite fears of an overstretched military by most experts, Bush seems supremely confident that he can increase military recruitment enough to offset his proposed "troop surge" in Iraq. Where will these troops come from? -- Our high schools most likely.

Hidden within the funding benefits of the No Child Left Behind Act is Section 9528, which allows military recruiters access to directories with students names, telephone numbers and other personal information. Under the act, military recruiters are given the same access to student information as college recruiters, posing a substantial threat to student privacy. One prominent organization, Leave My Child Alone, notes that "the Pentagon has created an illegal database of 30 million 16-25 year-olds, including names, addresses, email addresses, cell phone numbers, ethnicities, social security numbers, extracurricular activities, and areas of study." Many parents and students are unaware that that this database exists, but likely wonder why they are receiving so many recruiting calls, letters, and visits.

Evidently, President Bush does not want to leave students behind in bad schools, but would rather they join up for military service. Instead of improving the schools themselves and offering better educational opportunities to the students, under-performing schools are targeted as fertile ground for military recruitment of our most vulnerable children.

Many parents have called for schools to resist releasing personal student information to military recruiters on grounds that it constitutes a violation of privacy, but schools have a strong incentive to provide the information. If a school withholds such information it can risk losing the bulk of its federal assistance. This is money that many schools can ill-afford to sacrifice. While there are ways for parents to opt out of the information sharing process, they are often unknown to parents and students and are under-publicized by schools.

However, the problem is gaining attention and schools are feeling the pressure to increase awareness about the process. Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan stated at a Board of Education meeting that, "We need to do a better job of getting the word out ... to help the parents, let them make an informed decision." Statements such as these are a positive sign but much more must be done. If schools, the media, organizations and individuals are able to publicize that parents do have the option to block access to their children's information, the threat to privacy will be greatly minimized.

Fortunately, several groups, including the War Resisters League ( and the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools ( have made "opt-out" forms available on their web sites, which can be sent to the respective district offices. While it is mandatory for the school district to make parents aware of the "opt out clause" in No Child Left Behind, the standard is arbitrary and it is imperative that agents outside of the school system take action.

There is also hope in Washington, as The Student Privacy and Protection Act (H.R.551) has been proposed as an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act that, if passed, will give parents the option to opt-in to military recruitment rather than being forced to opt-out. Advocates of the amendment can express their support through a petition hosted on the web site of the organization Leave My Child Alone ( Hopefully, the new Democratic majority in the Congress will bring new pressure on this issue.

The crux of this argument against providing private student information to the military is that it does not further the education of the students and redefines the role of school, from a place of learning to a venue for targeting future soldiers. It is also important to note that the schools receiving the most attention from recruiters are those in inner-city districts, where students have fewer options and are more likely to opt for military service at the expense of furthering their education after high school. While this may make perfect sense from the perspective of those recruiting soldiers for the front-lines in Iraq, it makes little sense for those who strive to create a more equitable education system. Responsible citizens should oppose legislation making it easier to prey on students and families that are in an economically disadvantaged position.

The fundamental question is whether, as a society, we should tolerate fusing education with militarism in our poorest schools. How can we expect students at these schools to feel that they are respected as learners, critical thinkers and invaluable members of their communities when they are conditioned to be soldiers? How can we expect students to achieve academically when they are sold out by an administration that professes to value them as potential high achieving students, but in practice treats them as potential cannon fodder? President Bush argues that we must change the culture of failure in our under-performing schools, "the soft bigotry of low expectations" as he calls it. These low expectations become increasingly evident when a culture of militarism invades our schools.

The culture of failure in our schools can only be challenged when students and parents demand that they receive a quality education and recognize the threat that militarism poses to their futures. It is nothing new for the United States to short change education in favor of defense spending, but providing the military unprecedented access to our children for recruitment has made the nation's priorities all the more clear.
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A.J. Di Lorenzo is a policy researcher, debate coach, and graduate student of history in Chicago, Illinois.
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