NEW YORK – It's already a challenge convincing high school seniors that they should think about boot camp instead of the prom.
But military recruiters — who must meet new-cadet quotas each year to maintain the 1.4 million active-duty member requirement — have faced other obstacles when it comes to finding fresh prospects in high school hallways.
A number of public schools across the country have restricted military access, forbidding or limiting on-campus visits and refusing to provide the armed forces with student contact information.
"In locations where there is limited school access, it's a matter of recruiters having to work harder and meet students where they congregate otherwise — in bowling alleys, at the mall," said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky. "It makes their work a bit more difficult."
The latest Department of Defense statistics, from July of 2001, show that 31 percent of public schools in the U.S. deny the military access to two or more of their recruiting services.
States that have the highest percentages of schools with limits are Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine. Conservative states like Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Indiana, and South Dakota have the lowest percentages.
Such limits could be lifted if Congress approves an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The bill, which has already gotten the green light in committee, requires public schools to release the names, addresses and phone numbers of all high school seniors unless their parents say no.
"We think we should have the same access as recruiters from universities and corporations," said Department of Defense spokesman Maj. James Cassella.
Two months into the U.S. war on terror in Afghanistan, it's more important than ever for the military to keep its ranks filled to capacity. Though the Defense Department met its recruitment goals for fiscal year 2001, the pressure has been cranked up a notch since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The military must entice more than 200,000 new recruits annually, according to Cassella. Those quotas could rise if the war lasts several years.
"A recruiter cannot relax," Cassella said. "It is always a challenge, and we can never rest on our laurels."
U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who has aggressively backed the latest bill, said he's spoken with the education secretary about withholding federal funds from public schools that ignore the legislation.
"Acceptance of funds requires people to comply with the law," Isakson said. "If you don't provide the [student contact] information, you don't get the money."
A statute that took effect over the summer already requires that high schools give military recruiters the same access other recruiters have unless the local school board votes to restrict that access.
One group, the American Association of School Administrators, has expressed concern over the latest bill.
"We question the need for the federal government to step into this debate," said AASA legislative specialist Mary Conk. "We believe this is a local issue and should remain at the local level."
Conk said involving the federal government could create "a trail of paperwork" for school administrators and believes the amendment is unnecessary.
"This is covered already," she said. "Most local schools have policies about this, and the current law that went into effect this summer is working."
But AASA doesn't have any major objections about the bill because of its provision for parents to opt out of having their children contacted — and because the law doesn't explicitly say schools will be stripped of funding if they don't cooperate.
"If they started threatening a loss of federal funds, that would become another burdensome federal mandate," Conk said. "It would just bury local districts in more paperwork. But according to language that was approved, nothing happens to schools that don't comply."
Isakson said he's confident the current administration will crack down hard on public schools that try to dance around the law. He doesn't understand why the amendment has been controversial.
"I don't see what the big deal is," he said. "All you're doing is allowing kids to find out what a career in the military is and allowing them the only access to post-secondary education they might get. And you're allowing the military, which does not have a draft, to at least tell their story."
He rejected the notion that high school military recruiting is a matter for community leaders, not Washington politicians, to decide upon.
"The protection of the people of the United States of America is a national issue, not a local issue," Isakson said.