The recent release of the 2014 DoD STARBASE annual report provides an opportunity to reflect on this little-known part of the Pentagon’s school militarization program. While the government shutdown in late 2013 left it in a weakened state, starting this year the military plans to extend the reach of STARBASE beyond its primary constituency — fifth-grade students in Title 1 schools — and to march its merry band of “mentors” into middle schools.
Supported by more than $20 million in annual funding from the Pentagon, in FY14 more than 40,000 fifth-grade students participated in DoD STARBASE at 58 locations in 31 states (including Puerto Rico). Students receive five days of instruction. Normally, school districts are only required to pay for the cost of transporting children to the military bases (the majority run by the National Guard) that host the program.
Besides promoting “knowledge and interest” in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), a “primary goal” of STARBASE, according to the annual report, is to generate more “positive attitudes towards military people” and to stimulate student interest in “STEM careers in the military.”
The program has been part of the national school militarism picture since 1993, when Congress first dedicated funds to support a national roll-out of STARBASE. It was a landmark year for school militarization. In addition to green-lighting STARBASE, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1993 also created the Troops to Teachers program and the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, and allowed the high school Junior ROTC to double in size.
There then followed a period of steady growth, peaking in 2013 when there were 76 STARBASE academies in 40 states. The government shutdown later that year significantly slowed this progress, leading to the closure of a number of STARBASE locations, and even sparking a debate in Congress over the future of federal support for the program. (Critics including Sen. John McCain maintained that STARBASE merely duplicated existing STEM outreach programs). But STARBASE supporters are an organized lot, and through a vigorous social media campaign parents and teachers fought hard to restore the program’s Department of Defense funding.
According to the DoD STARBASE “vision statement,” the program specifically tries to reach “at-risk” youth. More than half of students participating in the program are youth of color and three-quarters of the 900 schools reached by STARBASE in 2014 were Title 1-eligible (schools with at least 40% of students classified as low-income). Parents and teachers who lobbied to help save the program from budget cuts in 2013 often cast the program as a good resource for under-privileged youth.
Is the emphasis on reaching “at-risk” youth simply window-dressing? Numerous sociological studies have revealed a declining “propensity to enlist” among U.S. youth. As a possible solution, some analysts and top brass suggest that the military begin reaching children in elementary schools and middle schools, before youth military attitudes and plans for the future have fully formed. This may explain the pre- and post-tests administered to students at all STARBASE locations. Before and after the five-day-long program, children are quizzed on whether they agree with statements like “Military bases are exciting” and “The military is a good place to work.” Indeed, the 2014 annual report gushed that the program was responsible for “dramatic improvements” in children’s military attitudes.
Senior defense officials like this part most of all. In his 2011 testimony to the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Personnel, David L. McGinnis, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, mentioned the recruiting potential of programs like STARBASE. According to McGinnis, “senior military leaders,” such as then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, “agree that the DoD STARBASE Program is a productive investment in the future of our youth, building and enlarging the talented recruits we need.” In a 2009 PowerPoint presentation produced by Admiral Roughead’s own office, STARBASE was hailed as an effective way to promote “social awareness” of the Navy among the “youth market (grades K-10).”
If DoD STARBASE is so effective at imparting pro-military attitudes, why stop with fifth-graders? That seems to be the underlying logic of the recent push to expand STARBASE 2.0. At 14 of the existing STARBASE locations, students who enjoyed participating as fifth-graders can choose to continue in sixth through eighth grades as part of STARBASE 2.0. The annual report describes this as a “STEM-based afterschool mentoring program” and lasts for an entire school year.
Students’ relationships with their STARBASE 2.0 mentors — 63 percent of whom are military personnel — ensures that the seeds of military awareness that had been planted as fifth-graders will continue to be nurtured. Mentors are expected to work with their charges on STEM-related projects for at least four hours each month. “Through this exchange,” one retired Air Force general enthused on the Web, “our service members have a unique opportunity to reinforce the importance of STEM education as it relates to their own experiences in the military.”
STARBASE 2.0, according to a DoD fact sheet, provides the “missing link for at-risk youth making the transition from elementary to middle and on to high school.” For some critics, however, STARBASE 2.0 simply strengthens the school-to-military pipeline. In a recent book, Northeastern Illinois University professor Brooke Johnson assesses the impact of STARBASE: “If a child attends STARBASE, participates in STARBASE 2.0, and then joins a JROTC [unit] in high school, they will have participated in militarized education programs for eight years.”
According to a vision statement included in the STARBASE 2.0 Program Guide, this aspect of STARBASE “will be embedded in 100% of existing STARBASE programs.” The STARBASE annual report notes that “11 locations are planning to expand their operations with a DoD STARBASE 2.0 program in FY 2015.”
Despite its fairly long history, there has been virtually no organized opposition to STARBASE. Apparently the only case occurred in Portland, Oregon, during the late 2000s, where parents and other concerned citizens led an on-again, off-again campaign to have that city’s school board end its partnership with the program. While that campaign succeeded in focusing some much-needed media attention on DoD STARBASE, it ultimately failed in its goal to disestablish the city’s STARBASE academy.
Future campaigns against STARBASE will have to overcome serious obstacles. First, it is not going to be easy, given the hallowed status of STEM in education policy debates, to get school boards to question a science- and math-oriented program. There is also the question of resources. For now, most counter-recruiters choose to focus their limited resources on the high school level, where they see a greater need to protect students from aggressive military recruiting practices.
Does your community send its schoolchildren to a STARBASE academy? You can find out by consulting the appendix to the FY14 annual report. Letters to the editor and other kinds of media outreach can help educate your community. Finally, you can research the STARBASE academies in your area to see if they’re planning to create a STARBASE 2.0 in the coming year. Each STARBASE academy has its own website (listed in the annual report’s appendix), and many share information through quarterly newsletters.
DoD STARBASE 2014 Annual Report. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense/Reserve Affairs (OASD/RA). Available at http://goo.gl/zA91vg.
“STARBASE 2.0 Program Overview/Fact Sheet.” http://dodstarbase.org/sites/default/files/STARBASE2.0FactSheet_0.pdf
STARBASE 2.0 Program Guide. http://dodstarbase.org/sites/default/files/STARBASE_2_Program_Guide.pdf
“DoD Leadership Support.” http://dodstarbase.org/testimonials/dod-leadership-support-0
Johnson, Brooke, Culture and Structure at a Military Charter School: From School Ground to Battle Ground. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
McGinnis testimony, http://www.dod.mil/dodgc/olc/docs/testMcGinnis07272011.pdf
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/)