The fight to keep Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs in San Francisco's high schools is far from over, despite a last-minute push by veterans groups across the country. And who ultimately wins the battle could determine the future of the program in many cities throughout the U.S.
Pentagon officials, calling JROTC "an important academic and citizenship program for high school students," say they're hopeful the program will be saved. But they also say there are 700 schools in the country that are waiting to adopt the program if San Francisco drops it.
Opponents of JROTC programs, meanwhile, say educating students should remain a role for civilians, and not for retired members of the armed forces.
The kerfuffle by the bay began two years ago, when San Francisco's school board voted to phase out JROTC progams by the end of the 2007-08 school year, citing recruitment concerns and the military's policy toward gays.
The program was extended for another year, but last June, under threats of a lawsuit for not enforcing tougher state education standards, the school board voted to stop granting gym credits to JROTC students and to offer JROTC as an elective course only.
Immediately, enrollment in JROTC dropped dramatically.
But a state assemblywoman, Fiona Ma, a Democrat from San Francisco, recently submitted legislation that would reinstate JROTC at seven of the city's public schools and overturn the original decision by its Unified School District to phase out the program.
"Hat's off to Fiona Ma to try and save this program," said Jay Agg, a spokesman for AMVETS, a group of 180,000 U.S. veterans. "We hope she's successful — it'd be a real shame to deprive students in San Francisco or any other city the opportunity to reap the benefits of the program."
Among those benefits, Agg said, are the instruction of several key "life skills," including positive values and morals, strong leadership and community service.
"You're taking advantage of an opportunity to teach morals and honor and discipline and love of country," Agg said. "You want them to learn at a young age to be a good leader."
Ma's bill — which passed out of an education committee last week by a 6-3 vote — now heads to the state's Appropriations Committee. Assembly Bill 223 would then require a two-thirds vote in the Leglislature to take effect immediately. Pentagon officials continue to monitor its progress.
"We are hopeful that the School Board will realize that JROTC is an important academic and citizenship program for high school students, ensuring the students currently enrolled will continue to benefit from the program," Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told FOXNews.com in an e-mail.
"If, however, the Board declines to reverse its decision, there are approximately 700 schools on the waiting list to receive JROTC programs."
State Bill 601, which fortified physical education standards in California and was enacted last January, requires the California Department of Education to monitor to what extent schools provide physical education instruction by gym teachers who hold appropriate credentials.
Last June, facing allegations that it was illegally granting physical education credits for JROTC classes, the San Francisco school board members voted to eliminate the gym credit.
"Since none of our JROTC instructors hold appropriate physical education credentials, that's one factor the board took into consideration," spokeswoman Gentle Blythe told FOXNews.com.
Blythe also noted that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell wrote a letter last April to Col. Michael Johnson, who oversees California's JROTC programs, stating that JROTC classes do not, in most cases, fulfill the state's requirements for physical education.
Enrollment in the city's seven JROTC programs, which had already dropped from 1,600 students in 2006-07 to 1,050 in 2007-08, sank to about 500 this year once the phys-ed credit was removed.
Ma claims the decrease in enrollment has coincided with the school board's decision to eliminate the gym credit. The Department of Education was unable to provide statistics on the number of schools that offer physical education credits for JROTC programs, but at least two states, Florida and Alabama, specifically list ROTC programs as an option for fulfilling the requirement.
In other cities like Chicago, which has at least 34 JROTC programs at city high schools, students receive physical education credit for participation, said Frank Shuftan, a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools. In New York, students do not, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Margie Feinberg.
Established by Congress in 1916, JROTC was an Army program before it was expanded to all branches of the armed forces in 1964. The program is now the Defense Department's largest youth development program, with more than 480,000 students enrolled nationwide in about 3,400 secondary schools. In 2007-08 alone, Lainez said, those students performed more than 7 million hours of community service.
Agg said the programs also provide invaluable health benefits to students.
"At a time when obesity and physical fitness are such important issues in America, this is not the time to be cutting back on physical education," he said. "It's a critical area and an important education piece, and JROTC does have a physical fitness element to it."
For "many years," Lainez said, Pentagon officials have been concerned with the growing trend of obesity among U.S. teenagers.
"As such JROTC has strengthened the [Physical Education], Health and Wellness programs to help combat this national problem," Lainez said in an e-mail.
Vicky Chung, a senior at San Francisco's Lowell High School, told members of the Assembly during an April 1 hearing that the city's school board was not "thinking critically" when it voted to end JROTC programs that she said have taught her the importance of a higher education.
"Please, please, please use your power to intervene on our behalf," Chung said, according to prepared remarks. "I feel as [if] I'm back in the '50s and '60s, fighting for my civil liberties when the suppressors continue to force policies on me, limiting my freedoms, my rights, my choices."
Ma said school board members should "uphold the will of the voters," and cited Proposition V, a resolution that urged the school board to retain JROTC programs. It passed with 55 percent of the vote in November.
"We should be doing as much as we can to get children to stay in school and promote leadership development and community service," Ma told FOXNews.com. "This is about the students' right to choose and about programs that work."
But critics of Ma's proposal, including Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and members of Veterans for Peace say there's no place for military programs on high school campuses.
"Regardless of how you feel about JROTC, it is unprecedented for the state to mandate that an individual district offer an elective, non-critical program for a small number of students," he said. This is about respecting the rights of local elected school boards to make their own decisions."
Hal Muskat, an Army veteran who refused to serve in Vietnam, said he doesn't want his tax dollars going to what he calls "military training" for high school students.
"This is military training, it's that simple," said Muskat, now a member of Veterans for Peace. "This is about softening up very impressionable, open-minded, young teenagers to the cult of militarism. Military skills have no place in public schools."