Who's going to argue with this outcome? Back in 1992 Shunta Belle was on the fast track to nowhere, "hanging around thugs and drug dealers and trying to prove myself to them." Then, as a freshman at Provine High School in Jackson, Miss., she signed up for the spit-and-shine, no-nonsense world of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. For the first year, Belle held on to a few of her underachieving civilian comrades. But over the next three years, she picked up new friends, a better attitude and a fresh set of goals to match. "I got serious about things," she says, "and I wanted to be around people who wanted something out of life." Today Belle, 23, is a fire fighter in her hometown department.
It is stories like Belle's that have helped fuel the growth of JROTC. Started in 1916, JROTC established a beachhead at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy in Norwich, Vt. Currently the program can be found in some 3,000 public schools across the nation, and its Pentagon funding is expected to rise more than 50%, from $215 million last year to $326 million by 2004. JROTC has its best-known booster in Colin Powell, who was a ROTC cadet as a student at City College of New York. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he decided that JROTC offered the best prescription for saving lost inner-city youths.
"Yes, I'll admit, the armed forces might get a youngster more inclined to enlist as a result of Junior ROTC. But society got a far greater payoff," Powell later wrote in his 1995 autobiography, My American Journey. "Inner-city kids, many from broken homes, found stability and role models in Junior ROTC. They got a taste of discipline, the work ethic, and they experienced pride of membership in something healthier than a gang."
There are quite a few people, however, who believe that those success stories come at too high a price. After all, JROTC teaches kids how to act and think like soldiers before they are old enough to know their own mind. Critics argue that because such programs are among the few sources of additional funding for some of the nation's neediest schools, they exploit poor kids by putting them on a military track, to the exclusion of other options. The debate has heated up as a growing number of school districts have begun offering JROTC, while others in such cities as Oakland, Calif., and Chicago have scrapped conventional teaching methods to convert some schools into public military academies.
One of the biggest selling points of JROTC to school districts is that its matching federal funds provide a cost-effective way to broaden a school's curriculum. But that's a claim opponents say masks many hidden expenses. A recent study by the American Friends Service Committee argues, for example, that after school districts subsidize military instructors' salaries, renovate facilities to accommodate JROTC instruction and fork over for mandated field trips, JROTC is usually pricier than conventional academic programs.