Education bill serves as Trojan horse for military recruitment

WASHINGTON–To say that Sandra Austin was upset when she learned of the recruitment tactics of the U.S. military in her son’s high school would be an understatement.

In September, Ms. Austin was among several parents who reached out to The Final Call expressing concern that the nation’s 22,000 high schools were overstepping their boundaries in soliciting children for military service.


She produced a letter she signed “opting out” or refusing permission to the school to release personal information about her 17-year-old son, whom she wanted to remain unidentified, to military or college recruiters. The letter is a right of refusal to a little known section of the Leave No Child Behind Act that requires public and private high schools to fork over students’ vitals to recruiters–if the parents or guardians do not object.

In Ms. Austin’s case, after her signed refusal, the recruiters, upon visiting the school, solicited the information anyway by going to her son’s class and asking students to fill out a yellow card, giving name, phone number and address.

Last July, the No Child Left Behind Act, an education bill introduced by President George Bush the year before and signed into law in January, went into effect. Part of the law mandates the nations 22,000 public and private high schools that receive federal money under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to turn over the names, phone numbers and addresses of all students to military recruiters. With this access, recruiters can make unsolicited calls, send direct-mail recruitment literature and visit a young person’s home without the parent’s initial involvement.

“Am I enlisting?” the son nervously asked the recruiter who visited his school. “He told me no, but I still don’t know what I was filling out. I just did what we were asked to do in the class,” he told The Final Call.

The son is still a minor and is not required by law to register for U.S. Selective Service. Yet, as each day draws closer to America’s declared war on Iraq, parents are learning more about the aggressive push by the military to keep the potential “war without end” populated.

“We’ve been violated, and he is asking me a lot of questions. He thinks he might have actually enlisted for some form of service,” Ms. Austin said. She and her son are devout Christians and are opposed to wars that take the lives of other human beings.

The Austins are not alone in this dilemma. Parents and activists are worried that parental rights have been violated and now circumvent the ability of parents to help their children make informed career choices. Recruiters and school officials, on the other hand, say the recruitment efforts provide college opportunity that might not be available for some students.

The Bush administration maintains that for more than 25 years, the military has consisted of an all-volunteer force and that “sustaining that heritage requires the active support of public institutions in presenting military opportunities to our young people for consideration.”

According to U.S. Defense Department estimates, more than 2,000 high schools refused military recruiters access to their students. However, a letter, issued jointly by Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, dated Oct. 9, 2002, reminds educators that the disclosure requirement applies to juniors as well as graduating seniors and has prompted a more aggressive approach by guidance counselors to encourage the option of military service and has bolstered the presence of recruiters in schools.

Recognizing the challenges faced by military recruiters, Congress recently passed legislation that requires high schools to provide to military recruiters, upon request, access to secondary school students and directory information on those students. Both the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002 reflect these requirements.

In accordance with those Acts, military recruiters are entitled to receive the name, address, and telephone listing of juniors and seniors in high school, the letter reads. Secretaries Page and Rumsfeld suggest that providing this information to recruiters is consistent with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of student education records.

“Student directory information will be used specifically for armed services recruiting purposes and for informing young people of scholarship opportunities. For some of our students, this may be the best opportunity they have to get a college education,” they said.

Parents, students and public education activists, however, believe the new law to be an “open door” policy for military recruiters and a violation of the Privacy Act of 1974.

“School districts around the country are not using a uniform system to let parents know about the act. As a result, many parents may never find out that their information is being handed over to the military,” said Oskar Castro, of the National Youth and Militarism Program (NYMP). “The act’s coercive language forces schools and institutions receiving assistance under the act to comply with its directive.”

The threat of being labeled unpatriotic or potentially losing federal funds is enough to make some schools look the other way and allow the military recruiter more access than college and civilian employment recruiters are allowed, he said.

In the past, schools were reluctant to share personal information about their students, especially since other federal laws severely limit its release. Under these new laws, however, any school, public or private, that gets federal money under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have to comply, with the exception of private schools with religious objections to military service. Non-compliance could mean the loss of federal funding.

Several high schools around the country, through memorandum by their respective state boards of education, are encouraging guidance counselors to enforce the registering of seniors or those reaching the age of 18 for selective service, then recruiting those registrants to assist them in influencing the 17-year-olds to do the same when they become of age. Many military recruiters have been charged by education activists of using the statute to enter high schools unannounced and roam the halls trying to drum up business.

The main emphasis of Leave No Child Behind is the requirement to standardize testing for all students and to set tough accountability standards for schools. Most parents and educators are now only becoming aware of the recruiting provisions in the law because the emphasis on the overall legislation allowed for the provision to be missed and subsequently go unchallenged.

Alternative to law vague

Critics now say the law is an invasion of students’ privacy and an offense to the standard of local control over schools. They also question whether the provision is actually needed since all branches of armed services say they met their recruitment goals of last year and have consistently done so for quite some time.

Advocates of the bill maintain that the opt-out clause is sufficient and parents should make use of it if they don’t wish for their child’s information to be released. They consider the clause enough for those who believe the act a violation of privacy.

Section 9528 that points to the “opt-out” clause in the act states: “(2) CONSENT — A secondary school student or the parent of the student may request that the student’s name, address, and telephone listing described in paragraph (1) not be released without prior written parental consent, and the local educational agency or private school shall notify parents of the option to make a request and shall comply with any request.”

Many consider the clause vague, particularly as to how an educational institution must inform parents and students of the option it presents.

“Legal experts scrutinizing the act believe that the consent clause may not be a true ‘opt-out’ since it says a parent or student can request that information ‘not be released without prior written parental consent.’ This could imply that a school must simply procure a parent’s signature before releasing information,” said Mr. Castro.

“The statute does not indicate that the parent or student has a right to refuse to share their information with the military,” he said.

Career fairs and college fairs are traditional ways for employers and colleges to reach out to potential applicants and should be the only access option for recruiters of a discriminatory employer such as the military, said Mr. Castro. His NYMP says parents should go to their children’s schools and request the opt-out form, sign it and return the document to the school if they don’t want their children’s records made available to recruiters.

Activists maintain that a more uniformed system informing parents and guardians of laws and provisions affecting their children should be developed and implemented in a timely manner where the protection of a parents’ right to inform their children first are enforced.