Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Debate over Chicago 'Military' Public Schools Continues


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in a few minutes, separating the myths from the reality of breast cancer. A new survey says what many women think they know is wrong.


But first, to a topic we discussed on yesterday's program. We thought it was so interesting, we decided to expand on it today. The topic is military-run public schools.

Many school districts are experimenting with offering more specialized educational programs. Schools have been focused on the arts or science or business careers. Chicago is among the leaders in this effort, but some of their specialized schools are controversial, especially the schools affiliated with the military.

Currently, the district has five military academies, with plans to open another by the year 2009. It's all part of a program called Renaissance 2010, designed to dramatically improve public education in Chicago by the year 2010.

Yesterday, we talked with two Chicago residents on opposite sides of the conversation. James Simmons has a niece who attends Chicago's most recently opened military high school, the Marine Military Academy.

Mr. JAMES SIMMONS (Resident, Chicago): There is not a lot of choices that the students have, specifically African-American kids. The family structure has been broken down. We have a lot of kids who are 11 and 12, 7 and 8, actually, who are running amok out here. I think that with the structure and the guidance of the military, I think would bring reality to what's going on to their relationship in life right now.


MARTIN: Darlene Gramigna also joins us - joined us. She runs a group opposed to military influence in public schools.

Ms. DARLENE GRAMIGNA (Program Director, Truth in Recruitment): When minorities join the military, many of them become the combat troops, as opposed to the officers. And so in that case, I would be concerned about any high school student that was being encouraged to join the military at any time.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk more about this is Professor Pauline Lipman, who teaches urban education and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Also joining us is Herman Badillo. He is a former congressman, a former deputy mayor of New York, and a former chairman of the board of City College of New York. He has a longstanding interest in education issues.

Welcome to you both. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. HERMAN BADILLO (Former Deputy Mayor, New York; Former Chairman of the Board, City College of New York): Thank you. Glad to be with you.

Professor PAULINE LIPMAN (Urban Education and Policy, University of Illinois, Chicago): Thanks for joining - for inviting me.

MARTIN: Professor Lipman, you've studied Chicago public schools. You've written about program Renaissance 2010. How did this idea of creating these kinds of specialized schools start? And how widespread is this movement throughout the country?

Prof. LIPMAN: I don't actually know how it started in Chicago. I know that the first school was the partnership between the Chicago public schools and the Army. And we're seeing these schools in other cities around the U.S., but Chicago has the most militarized public school system in the U.S.

MARTIN: What do you mean the most militarized? They're just - there are more kids attending these kinds of schools than any other district? Is that it?

Prof. LIPMAN: Yes, and more of these schools. So Chicago actually plans to have a high school that is a partnership with every branch of the military by 2009. We have 20 middle schools that are affiliated with the military, and we have 11,000 students involved in military programs in Chicago.

MARTIN: These are popular programs, are they not? They're fully subscribed?

Prof. LIPMAN: Fully subscribed? I am not sure that the evidence actually bears that out. I do know that at some of the schools, that the programs are actually under enrolled. And I think we'd have to look more closely to see whether they're actually fully subscribed.

MARTIN: But I think it's important to point out that you signed a letter signed by 50 faculty of - and education programs around the city, objecting to these schools. Tell me why.

Prof. LIPMAN: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing to be clear about is that I think we're losing sight of the primary purpose of public schools in a democracy. The real purpose of public schools is to provide a rich and rigorous academic education for every child, and to help them develop the kind of critical thought and ethical responsibility to be able to participate fully in democracy. This is really the charge of public schools.

If all children had that, then they would have the background for college or other career choices and be able to be the stewards of the future. Certainly the role of public education is not to prepare children for the military. And, in fact, we - it's a national disgrace that the richest country in the world cannot provide a topnotch education for every student.

As an educator and a scholar who studies race in class and education, I'm really very concerned that parents in black and Latino communities, which is where the military schools are, have to resort to sending their children to military schools. I think this is a forced choice.

MARTIN: Okay, let's bring Mr. Badillo into the conversation. Mr. Badillo, you talked a lot about education. You worked on these issues throughout your career. What do you think about this idea - first of all, of this charter school movement in general, and specifically the idea of allowing the military to run some of these schools?

Mr. BADILLO: Well, I wrote - just wrote a book this year entitled, "One Nation, One Standard" about the Hispanic community. And the reality is that over 50 percent of the Hispanic kids do not even graduate from high school. Now it's fine to talk about how there are opportunities on how the public schools should serve the children, but I'm talking about reality. And anything that will help our kids graduate from high school I would support because today, even a high school diploma isn't worth very much. But if you don't have a high school diploma, you are doomed, really, to a life of poverty and non-accomplishment.

MARTIN: What do you make of the argument by some of the opponents of these schools that these are kind of covert recruitment tools? Does that concern you?

Mr. BADILLO: Well, of course, it concerns me. But on the other hand, when the kids drop out from high school, many of them join the military anyway because they have no place to go. So I would rather that they at least got a high school diploma and learn some of the value of discipline, because they might go on to something else.

MARTIN: Professor Lipman, these schools do have the same graduation requirements, the same academic requirements as every other high school in the city. What's so terrible?

Prof. LIPMAN: Well, I think we have to look what's actually going on in the schools. And I think we have to address the question, because I really agree that it is about reality. And the reality is that we do know how they develop schools that promote responsibility and leadership among youth. And we do have schools like that today, even in Chicago.

I'm working with a group of social justice-focused schools in Chicago that are working to foster a kind of leadership modeled after that of Dr. King, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks. And they engage youth in civic responsibility and commitment to their communities. They have very good attendance records. They have a very low dropout rate, and they are providing a very rich academic education.

So I think it's really a false argument to say that because there are military schools out there, that those are the only choices that are available. We have the capacity to build really powerful schools for all of our children. And it's really a question of where the priorities are. And so we - the money is actually coming from the military. When the money exists - and those are tax dollars - when the money exists to create other kinds of schools that would provide the kinds of education that are much more appropriate to the kind of democracy that we would hope to have.

MARTIN: Professor Lipman, though, if parents want that option for their children, shouldn't they have that choice, among others? These aren't the only charter schools or specialized schools available in Chicago. Shouldn't parents have the choice and kids have the choice if that's an option that they want, if the military is a career that interests to them?

Prof. LIPMAN: Yeah, that's an interesting question, and it's one that people often ask. But actually, the research that I've seen and the research that I've done myself shows that parents and students want opportunities not available in the public schools. As I just said, they want leadership, opportunities for leadership. They want opportunities for youth to exercise responsibility, opportunities to win respect. They want college preparation. They're not opting for military schools, per se, in most cases. They want those things. And as we know, there are actually very few good choices out there.

So that's why I said it's actually a forced choice. And I think we need to go back to the point of where the schools are actually being built, and which students are actually being affected by this. If this is a good choice, why is this choice not being offered in affluent white communities?

MARTIN: Herman Badillo, can I get your perspective on this? I know that in your book, you are a critic of vocational schools, that you believe that these schools have been used to steer black and brown kids into the trades. They don't offer a real path to advancements in your view. But what about this idea of these charter schools that offer these specialized curriculum, like focusing on business or the arts or the military? Do you think…

Mr. BADILLO: If there are jobs that exists when they graduate, fine. My criticism is that in many vocational schools, the jobs do not exist. But the problem is we do know how to train kids. But in Chicago and in New York City, the reality is that more than 50 percent do not even graduate from high school because of practices such as tracking, where kids are put in different classes, such as social promotion, where kids are automatically promoted whether they're learning or not. So we have to deal with what is going on now, and that is the - what's going on now in this country, not just in Chicago.

MARTIN: Do you have - do you share Professor Lipman's concern that black and brown kids would be steered into military academies, as opposed to other careers like the arts or the sciences or something like that people…

Mr. BADILLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: …perhaps associate with more elite constituencies?

Mr. BADILLO: I do share that. But the reality is they're being steered into the military, anyway. Look at the pictures of the young people who are now serving in Iraq - overwhelmingly, black and Latino kids. And many of those got in there because they did not see any opportunity coming out of the public schools in which they served.

MARTIN: And, Professor Lipman, final question to you. What other options would you like to see school administrators consider in addition to the offerings that already exist?

Prof. LIPMAN: Well, what I would like to see is an excellent public school in every community in the city. And as I said before - in the country, actually. And as I said before, it's really a national disgrace that the richest country in the world is not providing this. I - for example, I just looked yesterday at the Web site of the National Priorities Panel that looks at funding and where funding goes, and their data show that the cost of the war in Iraq, as of yesterday, would provide 234,533 four-year college scholarships at public universities for Chicago high school students alone. That's many times over the number of high school students. It would provide 83,842 new public school teachers for one year.

So the resources clearly exist, and we know how to create good schools. Chicago has top notch, highly selective college preparatory magnet schools that are serving a disproportionate number of white students and a disproportionate number of students who are not low-income students. And so we understand how to do it.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you.

Professor Pauline Lipman teaches urban education and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. We were also joined by Herman Badillo. He's an attorney with the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is "One Nation, One Standard."

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Prof. LIPMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.