The Pentagon’s signature program for instilling military values in American schools, the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), has a long history dating to 1916. But it hasn’t endured such bad press since the 1970s. In several damning articles, the New York Times revealed the structure of what’s wrong with high school military training: instructors who use their positions to prey on teenage girls, in-school shooting ranges built with grants from the National Rifle Association, and mandatory enrollment in some of the nation’s largest school districts — all abetted by school officials who fail to adequately monitor a program of such dubious educational value that many instructors lack a college degree.
These revelations have vindicated those in the “counter-recruitment” movement who for years warned of a largely unsupervised program taught by retired military officers. It also raises serious questions about why military training programs have any place in US public high schools.
The Pentagon spends around $400 million annually to provide training in military drill and “leadership” through the JROTC in more than 3,500 high schools, to approximately five hundred thousand students. Despite this presence, the program seems to operate on the fringes, with school officials exercising scant oversight even as instructors take their young “cadets” on extended travel to military bases and interschool competitions. Such conditions foster an environment rife with potential abuse.
The Times identified at least thirty-three JROTC instructors who had been criminally charged with sexual misconduct with their students, and found evidence that numerous other instructors were accused but never charged. According to the education outlet Chalkbeat, Chicago’s head of school military instruction quietly resigned last summer, three years after failing to inform officials of suspected sexual abuse by a JROTC instructor who was later arrested.
A crucial part of JROTC’s carefully crafted image is its voluntary nature: students are said to willingly sign up simply because they like what the program offers. Thus, the news that thousands of students were forced to take military courses is especially troubling. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) boast of having the country’s largest JROTC program, with more than 7,800 teenage “cadets” in thirty-seven high schools and six school military academies. But according to a 2022 CPS inspector general’s report, Chicago’s success with military education is based on compulsion and coercion.
Indeed, the inspector general found that over the past two years, nearly all ninth graders at ten CPS high schools were automatically enrolled in JROTC, which requires them to dress in military uniforms weekly and practice marching in drills. Procedures for opting out of the program were not clearly communicated with students or their parents and in some cases were nonexistent.
Chicago is only the tip of the iceberg. As the Times revealed in December, “dozens of schools have made the program mandatory or steered more than 75 percent of students in a single grade into the classes, including schools in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, and Mobile, [Alabama].” Most of those schools had a large proportion of non-white students from lower-income households.
These investigations prompted one of the first congressional inquiries into JROTC in recent years. In Chicago, CPS announced it will end automatic enrollment in the program and now require schools to issue parental consent forms for JROTC participants. These are welcome changes. But fundamental questions about the program remain: What is its real purpose? How are JROTC instructors screened for their influential positions? Why is the United States virtually alone in the Western world in mixing military instruction with public education?
A Turnstile for the Military
For decades, those raising these questions have largely been the parents, teachers, and veterans who comprise the counter-recruitment movement. Given the absence of meaningful oversight of military personnel in public education settings, it is counter-recruiters who have monitored the military’s presence in schools. While their activism primarily involves visiting high schools to speak with students about alternatives to military service, they have successfully lobbied to restrict recruiters’ access to students. Counter-recruiters also work with their allies in teachers’ unions, parent-teacher associations, and civil liberties organizations to prevent new JROTC units from being established in local schools.
Though little known, these nationwide efforts represent a significant challenge to the consensus view about military instruction in high schools. Proponents assert that JROTC is an undeniable good, taking teens from troubled backgrounds and molding them into responsible, civic-minded citizens. As former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley boasted, JROTC “provides students with the order and discipline that is too often lacking at home. It teaches them time management, responsibility, goal setting, and teamwork, and it builds leadership and self-confidence.” Other endorsements are even more gushing. Colonel Andrew Morgado, who formerly oversaw JROTC programs in much of the Midwest, suggested that JROTC “may be one of the best leadership development and citizenship-focused programs we have.”
These are valid aspirations and express the vision of JROTC, but the evidence demonstrates something much different. At least sixteen states do not require JROTC instructors to have a teaching certification, and many states do not expect instructors to have a college degree — facts which challenge the program’s educational value. The sexual exploitation of minors — which mirrors conditions facing women in the military — raises fundamental concerns about the safety of students enrolled in the program.
While JROTC may foster leadership development for some, what the program undeniably does well is enable military recruitment in high schools. In their public statements, military officials claim that JROTC does not engage in recruiting. But when appearing before Congress, they sing a different tune.
Vice Admiral Norbert Ryan, Chief of Naval Personnel, proudly told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2002 that approximately 40 percent of those who enrolled in Naval JROTC pursued a career in the military after graduation. “Although predominantly a citizenship program,” he added, “JROTC presents a positive presence in schools and in the public, thereby enhancing Navy recruiting efforts.” In 2019 congressional testimony, Secretary of the Army Mark Esper admitted that JROTC “tends to . . . encourage kids to join the military at higher rates than anywhere else.”
In the most rigorous study of the topic, economists at the Naval Postgraduate School found that JROTC so effectively serves as a turnstile for the military that it is best understood as a form of vocational training. The only difference between JROTC and classes like automotive mechanics, they noted, is that “JROTC prepares students for careers in the military.” Thus, while not technically recruiting youth into the military, the program is important to the military’s operations.
Given recent revelations, educators should reassess their relationship with JROTC, and military officials should come clean about the purpose of this program. In their communication with parents, and their training for high school principals, JROTC leaders should acknowledge what their program is designed to do: prepare America’s children for military service.
Critically, students in urban areas — where JROTC is present in one out of four high schools — often lack other career options or the opportunity to engage with different perspectives about the use of military force. To correct this imbalance, educators should be given the latitude to bring in guest speakers and develop curriculum that explores the pros and cons of military service. And if the program is to remain in US public schools, then JROTC should be an elective. No student should be forced to don a military uniform against their will.
Just as important, the Left needs to reclaim its legacy of leading movements to resist school militarism. Working at the grassroots with limited resources, a small number of counter-recruitment activists have won key changes in JROTC practices and school recruitment activities since the late 1970s. The student-led Education Not Arms Coalition (ENAC) offers an instructive example. In the early 2010s, students at San Diego’s Mission Bay High School built a campaign around a race and class analysis, noting how a college preparatory program serving mostly Latino students had been forced to surrender classroom space to the Marine Corps JROTC program. Student activists and their adult allies effectively “un-cooled” the JROTC, leading to such a sharp drop in enrollment that by 2012 school administrators opted to dismantle the Marine Corps program.
While ENAC’s campaign was notable, our research suggests that counter-recruiters often feel isolated and need more support from parents, educators, and progressive activists. With JROTC on the defensive as never before, fundamental reforms of the program can help challenge the growing militarization of public schools.